NASA has turned its attention away from the planets in our solar system in the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system and is focusing on the moons orbiting some of the larger planets. One such object of study is Saturn’s moon Enceladus, seen in the image below.
In this image, the rainbow-like spire jutting from the side of the moon is a false color image of icy particles and water that spew into space from an ocean deep under the icy surface of the moon. Scientists believe that life on Earth originally started deep in the ancient ocean, conditions that could exist in the oceans of Enceladus. A NASA experiment has recreated how scientists think that life on Earth could have started in the ancient ocean inside a lab.
NASA scientist Laurie Barge and her team were working on ways to find life on other planets by studying how life started on Earth. The research specifically focused on how the building blocks of life form in hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. In the experiment, the team formed mini seafloors in beakers filled with a mixture that mimicked the primordial oceans of Earth.
The experiments showed that the beaker oceans acted as nurseries for amino acids, which are essential to life as we know it. Amino acids build on each other to create proteins, which make up all living things on the planet. The experiments looked at hydrothermal vents where natural chimneys form as heated fluid from deep inside the Earth flows out.
Where the heated fluids exit into the ocean creating an environment where life was able to grow and flourish and still does to this day despite the cold ocean depths, this same process could mean life exists on icy worlds like Enceladus. The experiment used water, minerals, and precursor molecules pyruvate and ammonia, all needed to make amino acids. The solution was heated to 158-degrees Fahrenheit, the same temperature found in thermal vents. Another mineral called iron hydroxide was used, which reacted with the little oxygen found in primordial oceans to produce alanine, an amino acid, and alpha hydroxyl acid lactate. Ultimately, the team found that the experiment led the building blocks for life to occur.