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. gerald

    Awesome. I say they look like prawns. What do you guys think?

    June 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • GoodAdvize

      I think I find this representation of the sound of saturn pretty cool!

      June 24, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Tiffany

    Would it be too far away from the sun for it to be within the habitable zone? Isn't that the case with Mars already? Dunno, just askin'..

    June 24, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      Not at all, the moon itself is constantly being squeezed on it's axis as it orbits, and the friction alone from that activity creates the heat required to create liquid water... which we know the melting point of is actually quite livable.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • thegadfly

      The point is that there may be (many) habitable places outside the so-called "habitable zone".

      June 24, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • SLM

      The difference is that Mars doesn't have an atmosphere. There are parts of our planet where there is zero sunlight that still harbours life. Water, oxygen and atmosphere play a bigger role in creating life as we know it than sunlight does.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      Actually, there is an unknown heat source of the planet like nothing Earth's scientists have ever seen which causes the eruptions.

      June 24, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. rtbrno65

    How come it's ok to call a planet a gas giant, but if you call a person that then they get all upset?

    June 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • thegadfly

      Same as if you call them a troll.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • stickman

      The same reason you get upset when people call you uranus....

      June 24, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. SweatPea

    I there be fish in that there Ocean then I can have me some Alien Sushi! Build me some Star-whaling ships ya scurvy dogs and stop with your nancy-lad spelling banter!

    June 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  5. OMG!


    June 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason Canty

      you mean SPACE! Sea-Monkeys!

      June 24, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. tony ostinato

    it will make for an interesting season of deadliest catch.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. glyder

    dont hold your breath,didnt we go through this with mars.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      No, I don't believe anyone has declared mars habitable for anything outside microbial life.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  8. leeintulsa

    Other species may be ahead of us – what with our 'dark ages'.. But maybe they are just ant hills, too

    June 24, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jimzcarz

    I just can't believe people are so closed minded to think that throughout this whole universe we are the only intelligent beings.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Xerxes

      By "intelligent beings" I assume you're not referring to Congress?

      June 24, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. bill

    Great news if we can finally prove life on other planets or moons. Maybe we can finally put an end to all the nut job religions.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • thegadfly

      Alas, just because religion is BS doesn't mean we won't find it elsewhere. Every intelligent civilization begins as an ignorant one.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • YouCantNeverTell

      Exactly how would the discovery of life elsewhere preclude the existence of a creator? Where is the logical connection? Just because humans have gotten it wrong all these years doesn't change the existence, or lack thereof, of a creator.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Davey Jones

      I don't think there are any religions at all that have said there is definitely NOT intelligent life somewhere else, so how would it disprove any religion???

      June 24, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. SweatPea

    “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.” ...
    Calvin & Hobbes

    June 24, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  12. cc

    the point is, what we know as the habitable zone, is growing beyond traditional understanding.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Leanndra

    Let's go!
    Just remember: If they bleed you can kill them.....

    June 24, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johnny

      I ain't got time to bleed

      June 24, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leanndra

      @ Johnny – Awesome...

      June 24, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • cool

      OKAY COOL YOU'RE RIGHT LET'S GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LET'S GO RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!

      Oh wait...uhhh...what if they *don't* bleed?

      June 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kevin

    Imagine living on a total ocean moon, with your sky being endless ice in every direction, shielding you from the void like a Dyson sphere.

    All habitats floating, all agriculture aquatic... a cool blue sheen illuminating everything.

    I want to live longer.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Annunaki

      ...and then you die getting caught in a jet spray and crushed in a tiger stripe. It may be habitable but it's not hospitable.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. SweatPea

    The gravitional pull from Saturn pulls at the moon producing heat – thus allowing a liquid ocean to occur underneath the crust. Otherwise – yes- it is outside the traditional habitable zone.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
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