NASA says it has made a key mineralogical discovery that provides an important step forward in its mission to search for signs of life, present and past, in outer space.
A review of NASA's Cassini probe data has indicated that phosphorus is present on Enceladus, one of the ringed planet Saturn's 124 moons.
The findings were published in the journal Nature.
Christopher Glein, one of the paper's co-authors from the Southwest Research Institute, called the discovery "stunning" for the field of astrobiology.
He said researchers found an "abundant" amount of phosphorous in ice samples that were spraying out in plumes from an ocean below the surface of the moon.
The discovery of phosphorous is significant as it is essential in the formation of RNA and DNA.
Scientists have discovered other minerals in ice launched out of planetary matter, but none are as significant as this discovery.
Phosphorous is found in the teeth and bones of humans, animals and simpler organisms on Earth such as ocean plankton.
Frank Postberg of Freie Universitat Berlin, a first author on the paper, said, "It's the first time this essential element has been discovered in an ocean beyond Earth."
For the study, researchers analyzed data from NASA's Planetary Data System, which acts as a long-term archive of digital data gathered through the space agency's space missions.
Cassini began exploring the planet Saturn, along with its rings and moons, in 2004. In 2017 it burned up in the planet's atmosphere, ending the mission.
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