Scientists: Saturn moon could support life
NASA's Cassini space probe snapped this photo of jets spewing from Enceladus, one of Saturn's 53 moons.
June 24th, 2011
03:49 PM ET

Scientists: Saturn moon could support life

That's one small step for microbes, one giant leap for mankind's search for extraterrestrial life.

NASA's Saturn-exploring Cassini spacecraft has gathered new evidence that conditions on Enceladus, one of Saturn's 53 named moons, could support life, said Dr. Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Team at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

"On Enceladus we have conditions under the surface that we know could be enjoyed by organisms similar to types of organisms we find right here on Earth," she said Friday.

Several years ago, Cassini, launched in 1997, spotted jet sprays shooting out of fissures called tiger stripes in Enceladus' southern polar region. Lighter particles from those jets provide most of the material for Saturn's outermost ring, called the E ring. But heavier particles fall back to the moon's surface, Porco explained. Cassini took measurements of the spray during three passes and found a greater concentration of sodium and potassium grains (that is, salt) nearer Enceladus' surface than farther out, according to a paper published in this week's edition of the journal Nature.

"There currently is no plausible way to produce a steady outflow of salt-rich grains from solid ice across all the tiger stripes other than saltwater under Enceladus' icy surface," Frank Postberg, a Cassini team scientist at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and the lead author on the paper, said in an article on NASA's website.

"This finding is a crucial new piece of evidence showing that environmental conditions favorable to the emergence of life can be sustained on icy bodies orbiting gas giant planets," Nicolas Altobelli, the European Space Agency's project scientist for Cassini, added in the same article.

Of the particles that fall to the surface, 99% are salty; that means the water must be in contact with rock, which would create all the necessary conditions for life, Porco said.

"It's falling like snow," she said. "It's not crazy to think we could have snowing microbes."

Porco advocates sending a probe to land in Enceladus' tiger-stripe region to find out, because the evidence is so accessible.

"I think we should go directly to Enceladus," she said. "We should not pass 'Go,' we should not collect $200. ...

"All you have to do is land on the surface and stick your tongue out to sample the habitable zone," she said.

Porco, who has been working on the Cassini team for 21 years, hopes to live long enough to see definitive evidence for "a second genesis in our solar system."

"It would answer one of the greatest questions people have been asking ever since we could ask questions," she said.

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Filed under: Science • Space
soundoff (392 Responses)
  1. Del

    Or perhaps, there are star faring civilizations out there, but we are in a region that they have no interest or no logical reasoning for devoting resources to get to. Or maybe they have observed our willingness to create war and destruction and simply said, "maybe we'll keep our distance from those angry humans, they might try to send a nuke our way" It's almost ridiculous at this point to doubt the existence of other intelligent lifeforms, they universe is just too damn big to harbor only us and a bunch of microbe filled planets.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unlike Mike

      When you consider how many times our little planet has had to start life over again from nearly scratch, (all the mass extinctions we have been through), there is a good possibility that life starting out on a luckier planet is MUCH further along in its evolution.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Naitram

      Well beam me up Scotty because I'd be happy to get off this little blue marble where the daily forecast consists of napalm and occasional mushroom cloud.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • KukulKhan

      the sumarians the ancient civilization found in the craddle of civilization passed on their beliefs that gods came down unto earth and created man the first man's name was adamu in christianity god created a man he put forth in the garden of eden this man's name was adam.... coincidence yes or no? all major religions believe in higher powers and they all point to the heavens or in scientific terms outerspace. the thing is i dont have any reason to doubt that if a higher power could create this world and all thats in it this higher power could look down upon us and see our everymove but i do believe in genesis ch. 3 verse 22 we can pray for god to remove the obstacles in our way but he wont because he gave us the ability to do things on our own we are as one of them and anythings possible if we all work together we shouldnt worry about how to feed a million people in one day we should contemplate one day and come up with a plan to feed 10 million mouths over a period of 10 years whenever we start focusing on our future generations and how to give them a better life than we could ever dream to have thats when we'll find out our origins instead of awaiting god's arrival we should be prepairing for it stop looking for answers when more important matters are at hand.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • KukulKhan

      and its crazy to think people say beam me up scotty whenever if there ever was a scotty who could in fact beam us up in his spacecraft he never would do people honestly believe otherworldly beings would visit us then take some of us back with'em when this forecast of napalm and mushroom clouds is our doing ppl need 2 wake up and realize it isnt only nuclear power that will produce problems later on its also us we're the biggest plague on earth mother nature does her own thing we dont control the path she paves. we dont fully understand the clouds and the lightning that is produced therein we may want to leave this rock but we're stranded here we need to make the best of it. money regulates but causes so much stress tell me y should we have to pay another man equal unto us for something we've inherited from the earth something god has given us to do with whatever we please god intended on there to b different tribes amongst men just as there are various governments yet god did not intend on one man being greater than another.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Ed

    And who will pay for this adventure? And we would we care if life exists on a place where we could never live? Sorry, but we have numerous and more pressing problems down here on Earth, and that's what we should be spending money to solve.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unlike Mike

      Ed, The persuit of knowledge has never been wasteful. If no one had dared to explore the endless oceans, you wouldn't be sitting on your couch posting over the internet onto CNN's newssite.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      Just as there were "more pressing" problems when Columbus set sail, and when Mog the caveman decided to look on the other side of the mountain, and when the monkey-thing decided to try his luck in the next forest over, and so on.

      There will always be people like you, Ed. But fortunately for all of us, there will also always be people like them. It's a shame that the human race - or at least whatever tiny fraction of it you're in a position to influence - is held back by the likes of you. But on balance, on the whole, you don't really matter. The ones who explore and learn and push the envelope of what we know and what we can do are the ones who matter.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steventxsa

      You never know.. There could be the cure to cancer or aids in plain site on (a) that (planet) moon. You could discover new elements. You could discover a means to create alternate energy. You can't think inside the box all the time. You don't know what you could find there.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Naitram

      Yes, our pressing problems here on Earth are finding out who slept with who and what crazy hijinks our favorite politicians will get into with our continental neighbors.

      Sorry if that's what you enjoy, but it's getting kind of boring around here.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • teepee

      Unlike Mike, you did not answer his question...

      June 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gabriel K

      They raise my tax rate by 5-15% point and use that money for space exploration and I would be perfectly ok with it.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • pwilli

      ed, when we send probes into space the money does not go with it. It is spent right here. If you want to stop wasteful spending, stop paying adults millions to play kid games.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • rudy

      agreed ed, but this, in my opinion is much different. i find the concept of humans from earth attempting to inhabit another planet (or our moon) sick, and twisted as we have the most perfect planet given to us and that we are designed to live with and if we cant get around our selfish and base instincts then we dont deserve anything else.
      However, the potential discovery of life on anything but the earth would be about the biggest news in history. it would also put forth power to the notion that life outside of our planet likely existes EVERYWHERE in the universe vs the concervative thought that life is only here.
      much like the telesope it would open up a whole new awareness.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Unlike Mike

    Interplexer, You are hold the stick backwards, it says "Dog" on it, and you throw it for Pluto to go and fetch.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Interplexer

      LOL!!

      June 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Interplexer

    To Unlike Mike, we will have to further develop our technological ability to test such things, Right now CERN is in the process of studying the collision of two singular atoms to try and re-create the conditions in the first few moments of our universe.

    For all we know, our own curiosity may have been the cause of the big bang lol.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unlike Mike

      Interplexer, I follow science avidly. My mind is comforted by knowledge, my soul by religion. There are scientific Christians, one does not preclude the other. The Higgs Boson particle may help unite alot of theories, but we are still a long ways away from learning the true nature of everything.( I think I may have started the big bang when I was six and put both ends of the bread twist-tie in the electical socket.fortunately the dehumidifier was on wheels and covered the whole thing up)

      June 24, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Brandon

    This...is....AWESOME
    I love it when I hear news like this.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • rose gray

      Oh yes Brandon it is the ONLY thing that matters.We have to know what else is out there!

      June 24, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Not Enceladus

    Europa! Europa! Europa! Europa! Europa! Europa!

    June 24, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
  7. teepee

    So let all the hateful white people go there...

    June 24, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pinn

      ...or let all the other hateful different colored people go there...racists of all colors nowadays.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Highndry

    I think that we will eventually find that life, while rare, exists on many other celestial bodies. Advanced, intelligent life is a different story; the conditions required to create a man are much more specific than those required to make a paramecium. We will find lots of microbes out there eventually.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. RSting69

    To ALL, this means nothing, so what if there is ice, salt, rock and water on Saturns moon. Yes water may support life but how do we know what other elements are present in that water, is the water acidic and just because water is present does not mean it can support life, that is a theory outside this planet.

    I know all the "Big Bang" theorists and atheists just cannot wait to find life on another planet so they can say "I TOLD YOU SO!!!!" Well got news for all of you, God and the Bible never said anything about there NOT being life on other planets, he only said we are the only life created in HIS image. Debate all you want but even atheist scientists and astronomers are converting to the belief that our solar system was created by an Intelligent Design i.e. GOD!

    Sorry but cannot buy the whole cosmic soup thing, its never been proven its all theory based on hypothesis, which in simple terms is "My best educated guess" Thats like having your doctor diagnose your health with his "Best educated guess" sorry wouldn't cut it for me.

    And let the debates begin, lol..................

    June 24, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • teepee

      did He say we are the only life created in His image? dont remember reading that...

      June 24, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Highndry

      Even God realizes that math is the language of the universe. Our solar system, and the galaxy, are formed through natural processes. Did God write the owners manual? Sure. But he used math. The two exist simultaneously.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan, TX

      Nope, no scientists intelligent design is a scientific explanation for anything, and netiher should anyone else. If you want to believe in God, that's great, but forget about trying to prove supernatural things based on natural sciences. I believe God created the Earth 10 minutes ago and everyone was just created with these memories as though there was time before 10 minutes ago. That is my faith, and you can't prove me wrong.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ohjoy

    All I can say is ever form of intelligent life we've discovered on this planet became hostile. Lets hope the one we encounter in space when we do, is a little bit more welcoming. There are billions of galaxies, who knows what is out there. Perhaps we should be just keeping a low low profile but curiosity always gets the best of us.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. teepee

    one thing for sure...YOU people will never see the day we get there...America is broke, remember?

    June 24, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • ohjoy

      Thats why the new space program is called CBASA...........(China Bought America Space Agency)

      June 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Rod C. Venger

    I volunteer Dr. Porco to be the first person to land on a body other than the moon or Earth and further volunteer her bank account to finance her journey. Happy Trails!

    June 24, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Highndry

      how bout this-we switch to economic nationalism or regionalism, get everybody back to work, and then we can explore space. Global trade...sucks.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      NASA's tiny budget is less than 1% of the Federal budget. Reallocating it won't magically solve the rest of the world's problems. All you'll accomplish is to put the US further behind the science, technology, and education curve than it already is.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. RGeneration

    Funding pitch. What else.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. someone

    Well lets send something there as soon as possible to find out. It would be a much better target than Mars in that case.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  15. someone

    NASA is not a waste cause guess what, ONE DAY WE WILL BE USING SPACE TO OUR ADVANTAGE.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
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