Scientists have detected a poison among the spray of molecules emanating from a small moon of Saturn. That adds to existing intrigue about the possibility of life there.
The poison is hydrogen cyanide, a colorless gas that is deadly to many Earth creatures. But it could have played a key role in chemical reactions that created the ingredients that set the stage for the advent of life.
“It’s the starting point for most theories on the origin of life,” said Jonah Peter, a biophysics graduate student at Harvard. “It’s sort of the Swiss Army knife of prebiotic chemistry.”
Thus, Mr. Peter was excited when he found hydrogen cyanide at Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn that is about 310 miles across. It has a subsurface ocean that makes it among the most promising places to look for life elsewhere in the solar system.
Mr. Peter and his collaborators, Tom Nordheim and Kevin Hand of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, reported their findings in a paper published on Thursday in the journal Nature Astronomy.
They also found organic molecules like acetylene, propene and ethane that could power chemical reactions to provide energy for microorganisms living in the Enceladus ocean. The data also points to the presence of an alcohol like methanol, although the researchers could not definitively identify which alcohol. [Continue reading…]