Pakistani-German Astrobiologist Dr Nozair Khawaja, along with his team of US and German scientists, has discovered a vital organic molecule on Enceladus, one of the 62 moons revolving around the Saturn.
The groundbreaking development itself revolves around the discovery of an organic molecule, understood to be a prerequisite for the existence of life, on one of Saturn’s 62 moons. The discovery, experts believe, make Enceladus a notable candidate for extra-terrestrial life.
“A Cassini Spacecraft was sent to Saturn system in 2004 and since then we have been continuously analysing the data from Cassini and trying to characterise the material from Enceladus,” said Dr Khawaja while speaking on SAMAA TV’s programme Naya Din on Monday.
Although the Cassini spacecraft did a remarkable job during its voyage, the instruments onboard the spacecraft were built a long time ago, and now with advanced technology, we can explore Enceladus’ ocean in more detail, he added.
After the end of the Cassini space mission in September 2017, we went back to Enceladus with advanced instruments to see if there is extraterrestrial life, Dr Khawaja said.
“Science is all about analysis and experimentation. We have a lot of data from the Cassini spacecraft and I am still working on it,” he remarked. “We are trying to connect all the missing puzzles of this mysterious moon.”
Dr Khawaja explained that Enceladus is very far from the Sun and the surface temperature at Enceladus is extremely cold, approximately -200 °C, which means that human colonisation of Enceladus is not possible. “All the moons of Saturn are extremely cold. When we talk about life on Enceladus, we are talking about its sub-surface,” explained the scientist. “There is an ocean on the subsurface of Saturn’s Enceladus, which keeps it in contact with the rocky surface.”
“We cannot say for sure that the origin of these molecules in living organisms, nor can we say that that life exists on Enceladus. Instead, we proposed that these molecules originated from hydrothermal vents inside Enceladus. Such a hydrothermal system also exists in the Earth’s ocean where microbial life exists. Therefore, the origins of these molecules are undecided but they have astrobiological potential.”
Dr Khawaja and his team have found a small but soluble and reactive organic compound pluming from the depths of Enceladus. “The compound from the ocean of Enceladus is already a known ingredient of amino acids found in the oceans of Earth,” he said.
Amino acids are the organic compounds known as the building blocks of life for almost every creature on Earth. Various types of amino acids play major roles in protein making, metabolism, synthesis in hormones and neurotransmitters from the brain to across the human body.
Dr Khawaja was born in Punjab’s Wazirabad. He completed his Masters in Astronomy and Space Sciences from Punjab University. Later, the Pakistani scientist acquired a PhD in Geosciences from Heidelberg University in Germany. He has also worked as a post-doctorate scholar at the Institute of Earth Sciences for the same German university.
He has done a comprehensive study on life beyond Earth and is a leading name in many research programmes.
In 2019, NASA had honoured Dr Khawaja with the ‘Group Achievement Award’ for Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer. He is also a recipient of the Horneck-Brack Award from the European Astrobiology Network Association in 2018.