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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soundoff (392 Responses)
  1. DV

    I find your lack of faith disturbing

    June 25, 2011 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
    • glenn robert

      Faith is a bad word when applied to the real world!

      June 25, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. billy

    Everything that can be learned, can be learned in the bible.

    June 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • 5thApe

      Billy – that leads to the dark ages. The bible is nothing but bronze ages myths.

      June 25, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • glenn robert

      There is no need for a God or Gods to create anything in the universe!

      June 25, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anon


      July 5, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • William Demuth

      Including how to bugger altar boys, or is that special info?

      July 19, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Bob M

    I am sick and tired of CNN never updating their website. They leave old stories up for weeks and months at a time. Please CNN, remove the old stuff when it is no longer current. Stories such as Anthony Weiner seting scandal revealed.. how long ago was that? After a story is posted, it should be taken down after 3 dyas!!

    June 25, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. waves

    I am wondering if liquid water is all that is necessary for life to begin. On earth we had lightning and U/V light which energized some of the chemical reactions to produce the various monomers (building blocks) of life. Now if we find the building blocks of life on asteroids/comets, then that would be where those molecules would come from. I am also wondering what sources of energy are necessary for the monomers to be assembled in ways that would pre-adapt the molecules to become living organisms. I think there are a lot of questions, but that is good. I also think that regardless it would be exciting to visit Enceladus (or Europa) to see what is going on, regardless I am sure it would be fascinating.

    June 25, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. billy

    You need god to create life.

    June 25, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ken

    @billy: what created god and why isn't the thing that created god god?

    June 25, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • billy

      God is outside this universe thus voids causality. He doesn't need a beginner

      June 25, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • jorgath

      Better question billy: Who says God didn't create life elsewhere than earth? Even taking a complete literal interpretation of the Bible, there's a lot of things that God has done that the Bible doesn't cover because God didn't feel that we needed to be told about it in Scripture. Like, hmm...penicillin is a good example. Nowhere in the Bible does it outright say "God created a mold which can be made into a remedy which shall be called penicillin, and it was good." But, if you're a literal-biblical Christian, he did in fact do so because he made everything. The Bible doesn't cover every single detail of God's works, it provides us a solid framework while still leaving us room to discover things within that framework.

      P.S. Admittedly, I'm a Deist, not a literal-biblical Christian, but I think my point stands in your framework.

      June 26, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  7. Ming

    Don't feed the fundie trolls! It's a shame that wonderful news like this, which makes me feel blessed to be a part of the universe, just inspires fear in the faithful.

    June 26, 2011 at 8:40 am | Report abuse |
  8. Grandpa RD

    @SLM; Mars certainly does have an atmosphere, dolt. It's just much thinner than ours at a much lower pressure at the level of the Martian surface.

    Edjumicate thyself before runnin' the mouth, homie.

    June 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  9. suzi

    why bring religion into this at all! just lets marvel at the possiblity! makes me excited <3 <3

    June 27, 2011 at 2:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. Chris

    "one giant leap for mankind's search for extraterrestrial life."

    Uhh we've found fossilized bacteria on other then whats on earth existed at some point.

    June 27, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  11. JC Chile

    IGreat and very Interesting image. Is it a real shot or photoshop?

    June 30, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Shaif Yirboosch

    Great! Let US send all of Congress there on an 'exploratory mission' to see if it will support life. Then if it does we'll try sending intelligent life there. Use the Congress as lab rats.

    July 22, 2011 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
  13. loupro

    Even if the moon was to support life it would not make a bit of a difference since whoever populates it would in no time create division just because of the human nature and lack of a unified education, each individual will struggle to prevail with singular ideas/ideal. Selfishness would precede proper actions, eventually creating chaos and animosity and the finalization of its original intended purpose for being there.
    That said, we: ladies and gentlemen, teaches all of us the important lesson (while we remain on this planet) of brotherly love and the learning of the truth about why we are here! Thank you.

    June 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Reggiw


    June 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
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