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. jim

    I'd love to see the scientist go there, sticking her tongue out to go licky licky, and then get frozen and stuck.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. SweatPea

    Robots are cool but I like Turtles too.

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

      Turtles will turn on the humans... mark my words!

      June 24, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • George Sr.

      Yeah, but you can't send a turtle to Enceladus. I mean, you could, but why would you want to?

      June 24, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. YeahItsMe

    Everything is in place for life except for an intelligence to design it, I think the author meant to say.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clicky

      Bacteria Jesus, maybe? He's the son of a really smart multicellular God. Maybe it's the same God as mine.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Please tell me you're just trolling and not actually serious.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Davey Jones

      That's what I was thinking. It doesn't matter how "life-friendly" a planet's environment is, there has to be some event/trigger to actually START life, and that is something know human has been able to demonstrate.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Merrian

      Lol. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • swedejane

      I'm pretty sure the author did not meant to say that...there is NO proof of an intelligent designer.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Davey Jones

      And no proof against it either...

      June 24, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Davey Jones, nor is there proof against unicorns, a flying teapot orbiting Jupiter, the flying spaghetti monster, or any other fantasy you want to come up with. It is very difficult to prove something does not exist, as the common phrase goes "a lack of evidence is not evidence against", ergo, we could search the entire universe, find nothing, and still not be able to say, without a doubt, that 'unicorns do not exist'. That is why we don't accept "there is no proof against it" as reason to accept ANY postulate, because the burden of proof is on the positive claim. "Unicorns exist" requires proof, "unicorns don't exist" is the default until evidence comes by to the contrary.

      Saying "there is no proof against an intelligent designer" is the same type of deal.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Davey Jones

      Andrew, I disagree. I think there is evidense for God, though it isn't enough for proof, and it's too subtle to notice unless you search for it. Unfortunately, too many people are trying to disprove God instead of prove God.

      Life works out better for everyone when you follow a moral code. If there is no God, can you explain why that works?

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

      Science brings you the longest synthesized DNA chain
      http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/05/scientists-create-first-self-replicating-synthetic-life/

      June 24, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew 1

      Davey – religion or 'god' or anyone's idea of it, doesn't own or decide what is moral. A human act of kindness is not solely reliant on your religious code.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • CondeNY

      Religious folk commit immoral acts at about the same rate as the non-religious.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim Ryan

      Sort of an oxymoron to believe in an intelligent designer that would design a person who can't use their ability to reason – and you can draw you own conclusion

      June 24, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim Ryan

      Sort of an oxymoron to believe in an intelligent designer that would design a person who can't use their ability to reason –

      June 24, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      LOL! Intelligence! God is an alien. Oh, and quite a few of them. Christianity is wrong on nearly every point. They do have the extra-terrestrial part right, though.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • alsobrian

      lmao. your feeble mind is amusing. your probably one of those i "KNOW" theres a god folks. you cant know that kinda thing. i cannot be proven. belieiving in god without knowing for sure if hes there, is faith. faith is belief without knowledge. cause if you knew, you would not have much of a choice on weather you belived 🙂

      June 24, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • alsobrian

      @davey jones -- you would not live by any morale code if didnt think there was a god? you must be a terrible person. i know many people who do not belive in god and yet they follow a morale code. or is that you somehow think that morales exist therefore god exists? ok maybe your not really a bad person, just silly and naive.

      June 24, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. alkoholik

    Yeehaaawww....another planet we can destroy!!

    June 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • knowledge2power

      Exactly....Human ignorance trying to spill over into the rest of the universe. Only a fool thinks he can defy the laws of physics.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Yes, but the wise people at NASA are trying to USE physics to explore this unlimited expanse. Defiance of Physics was never really an option... or I'm missing the joke.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • knowledge2power

      Exploring something with man made machines in an environment you can't see or get to with knowledge acquired from what we know of the earth.

      June 24, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. SweatPea

    What if God were one of us? Just a slob like most of us? Just a jerk wab in an SUV plowing through traffic – trying to make his way home?

    June 24, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sarav Chidambaram

      Ah.. I am in Hiding and you just revealed who I am.. thank you so much.. now let us destroy one more heavenly object..

      June 24, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. azbearhuntr

    And yet NASA will find reasons to delay or totally exclude a mission to go there.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Davey Jones

      What result of a mission to Enceladus could possibly be worth the price tag?

      June 24, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • PlanetDude

      Any result would be worth the price. To be human is to explore.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Even if they find single celled amoebas there, it would be HUGE! We would know that we are not alone in the universe. If two inhabitable environments undergo the conditions and situations to create and sustain life in paralell in the same solar system, even if one of those forms of life is still very unevolved, it tells us right away that the possibility of finding life in other solar systems with habitable conditions is much more likely.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • David in Cincinnati

      Andrew, I don't think it would be so huge, relative to expense. Your argument above about unicorns, though sounding logical, could be applied (logically) to extraterrestrial life. I don't think the relevant argument is about proving negative existence, but rather, whether this or that (like unicorns or external life) is consistent with what is known. External life is consistent, and I think will be allowed to come into existence here on earth in the next 50 years with vastly more information found than from sending a probe to a moon of Saturn.

      June 25, 2011 at 4:16 am | Report abuse |
  7. Annunaki

    Great...one more place for us to fcuk up or exploit or both.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sabot

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

    I triple dog dare you to do it!

    June 24, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Niki

    I want to know, my whole life I have been fascinated with the idea of life beyond our planet, if we are this close to finding out... I say we do it!!!!

    June 24, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. azbearhuntr

    NASA likes their beloved flyby missions but it seems like whenever they get a clue to possible life they change course rather quickly, instead of funding a life finding mission they will launch another globalwarmalite to study oceans here on earth.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • MadJerry

      More like conservative politicians pander to the religious extremists to cut funding for such programs to prevent them from having to swallow one large, gigantic and humongous pill (see terrestrial planet finder canned by GW Bush). That pill being that all of their 2000 year body of dogma is complete crap.

      June 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
  11. MrSarcasm

    This is a very dangerous situation.

    We should send BP in immediately to cap those jet sprays.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • PlanetDude

      No, just wait, they'll go away.

      June 24, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  12. knowledge2power

    These scientist keep looking for planets, moons, or whatever that can support life (by what WE know as standards for supporting life). There are many questions surrounding this issue but the one major question that cannot be answered is, if we they did find a planet that could support life how are we going to get there. I don't know of any space shuttles that get 1 light year per gallon or any human being that has lived for 300, 000 years. Give it up.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wayne

      If the planet can support life then chances are life is already there.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chuck

      There was a time people like you said the same thing about distant islands. Then we figured out how to make boats float.

      We'll get there.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • PlanetDude

      Agree with Wayne. From a physics point of view, life is thermodynamically favorable given the right initial conditions, otherwise we would not be here. So if the right initial conditions exist elsewhere, life should develop unless other factors intervene.

      June 24, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • knowledge2power

      It takes more than just favorable environment conditions to create life.

      June 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • David in Cincinnati

      Tell us Knowledge! What more, what more?

      June 25, 2011 at 4:21 am | Report abuse |
  13. STLTim

    If we find life there, but we can't eat it, tax it, or violate it, I doubt we'll bother going back.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Harvey Wallbanger

    If the possibility of life exist there we may want to keep the Cassini probe well away from the moon. Don't know well the spacecraft was sterilized before leaving earth. Otherwise it when we send a followup probe to sniff for life, it might find us. Also, the possibility exists earth organisms may infect the existing ecosystem.

    I wonder if a moon as small as Enceladus could have had liquid water for the geologic time frame that seems to be required for life to arise (at least here on Earth)

    June 24, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • PlanetDude

      Unicellular life appears to have evolved rather quickly on Earth.

      June 24, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. rizzo

    Awesome!

    June 24, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
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