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. Kris

    Those interested in this topic should also look into Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. It's thought to have an icy surface concealing an ocean of what's basically seltzer water, possibly with undersea vents similar to those that produce some really bizarre lifeforms on Earth. Both moons are potentially exciting. Don't get your hopes up too high though, as any "aliens" we discover are more likely to be equivalent to bacteria than to humans. (That's based on how long it took anything like complex multicellular life to evolve on Earth.)

    June 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      Yeah, but the thing is, it would prove that the formation of life is common and easy tio do. If there is more than one place in our solar sytem where life started, then it is a virtual certainty that the universe is teeming with life, and that undoubtedly some of it would have evovled intelligence. There are just too too many stars out there for it not to be true. More than all the grains of sand in all the beaches on earth, the late great Carl Sagan used to say

      June 24, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      Who cares if its just bacteria! That would be by far the most significant discovery for the human race. I mean just imagine, do they have DNA like us? What makes them function? What is the energy source they use? So much we can gain from this!

      June 24, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • coco

      Kris, I agree with you, but remember that they have also being around as long as ourserves. Just a thought.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Moose

      Yes, but even if we do find life there, who says that that life "formed" specifically there? Its equally as likely that an asteroid bearing some form of extraterrestrial life hits a planet/moon with the appropriate conditions for its propagation and thrives, evolves, etc. It may be impossibly hard for life to start off for all we know, or, as you suggest it may be easy. Finding life outside the earth will prove/disprove neither hypothesis.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      Good point. But if the biolgy of the life was totally alien to ours, that would be pretty strong evidence that it actually formed there. At any rate, its sure worth looking for it. If it is found, the implications would be mind boggling any way you look at it.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chuck

      Moose – you're right, but for that matter all life on earth could be from microbes from an asteroid hit. There is not doubt that finding life extraterrestrially would be the greatest discovery of the modern scientific age.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jim

    Just to give the slightest inkling of how big the universe is. Our galaxy, one of about a trillion known, has 500 million stars . Imagine a high school gymnasium coverd knee deep in sand. Each grain of sand would represent one star in the milky way. Now suppose you wanted to build a scale model of the galaxy with the stars reduced to the size of the grains of sand. So you find the grain of sand that is our sun, and put it somewhere. Then pick up the grain of sand representing alpha centari, our nearest neighbor. On that scale, know where you would have to put it to make it accurate? 30 miles away. Then imagine carrying on the process with each grain of sand in that gym, placing each one 30 or so miles away from the next, until you have placed all the grains of sand. Then you would have a scale model of the milky way, which as I said is only one of at least a trillion other galaxies. Space is really reallly big. We are reallly really small.

    June 24, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Peter E

      Just minor number corrections (that don't diminish the point you are trying to make)
      The known number of galaxies is much less than a trillion, although only by one magnitue.
      There are about 200 billion stars in our galaxy, and this is three magnitudes off.
      The 30 miles distance is an overestimate by one magnitude for the average distance between stars in our galaxy.

      June 24, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      No, with new data from the Hubble, there are a lot more than we used to think. Hubble has estimated 200-500 billiion, but it is thought there are many more not observable in visible light because of extreme doppler effect due to thier distance.But thew would be visible in x-ray and other non visible frequencies.
      You are right about the milky way, the estimates are 100-500 billion, not milliion. I took the upper estimate.
      As for the scales, you are right, this is not the average distance between stars in the galaxy. But it does represent an accurate scale of the distance to alpha centauri. We are 2/3 of the way out from the center, and stars are much farther apart out here than at the galactic core.
      Anyhow, as you said, the point is that it is fu**ing HUGE.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • andre

      I'm afraid that this is a narrow minded view of things. It could be that we're just really small.
      Also, they say that the universe is expanding. Maybe everything's just getting smaller.

      The entire universe could actually be one atom.

      When it comes to universes and other unknowns, you must be willing to think out of the box.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      Quite true, Andre. One of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein: "Reality is an illusion. Albeit a very persistant one"

      June 24, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • DMR

      Jim, Doppler effect results in red shift for far away galaxies. So, if they are not visible, they would be in infra-red. If they are showing up only in x-rays, that would be something else altogether. Quasars?

      June 24, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. macjones

    Please don't take my picture, ugly bags of mostly water

    June 24, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      star trek alert!!!!

      June 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dr. Anthony Hayward

    Because posting the actual number for us lay people would be so much harder than typing "by one magnitue". Which is to say, I think you mean Magnitude? Happy trolling.

    June 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  5. andre

    Life is like crystals. Under the right conditions it just forms.

    Unfortunately, every once in a while it develops into a species that believes it is intelligent.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Frank Lowney Ph.D.

    Time for an artist's rendition of the view from Enceladus. Maybe it's already been done. Let's see it CNN.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. SolSearcher

    One part of Science is the everlasting pursuit of the unknown. No one can expect that in the next 100 or 200 or even 500 years, humans will colonize another planet/moon. But at some point, we will exhaust Earth's natural resources and the only way humans will survive is to find another source of these resources. The building blocks of scientific discovery are very important to the survival of our civilization. We should applaud this discovery knowing that many generations down the line will benefit from it.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      200 years ago it was a long long trip across lthe ocean in sailing ships. Then along came flight and jet engines and now its hours. Right now its a 3-6 month trip to mars with our current technology. But some day, maybe next week, a new form of propulsion will be discoverd that cuts the journey to days, or even hours. Thats when colonization will start. Right now, its just too damned far for our feeble little rockets. But as history shows, one invention, usually out of the blue, changes the whole ball game

      June 24, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      I think you're selling us (the human race) short. The separation between the Wright brothers and the ISS (the space station over our heads right now) is a mere 108 years.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • EdR

      Given the size of the universe (discussed above) any reasonable proposition to explore it must include the ability to control time and space so that distance and speed become irrelevant.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mike

    when we find life on another celestial body, then will people stop dismissing evolution and will they finally stop believing in Gods? Or will the zealots say "god put microbes on Encaledus in order to fool the non-believers"? Stay tuned to the program and watch the continuing antics of retarded, murderous religous nuts and the negative impact they have on all of society.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • thes33k3r

      You can count on the zealots to do exactly as you've predicted.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • regertz

      The Vatican's already hedged its bets by simply declaring it's possible and God made it everywhere. A wise decision...Certainly beats trying to put all modern day exoplanet discoverers before the Inquisition.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • RV1982

      What does evolution (i.e., change in allele frequency over time) have to do with believing, or not believing, in God? For that matter, what does finding life on another celestial body have to do with believing, or not believing, in God? Evolution and the genesis of life are two different things. One (ie., evolution) has to do with how life changes over time (i.e, genotypes/phenotypes). The other, as the name suggests, has to do with how life begins (i.e., does it just spontaniously erupt under certain conditions (e.g., mineral crystals) and than evolve as the enviornment changes, or is there some other "force" at work. You can ask the same questions with regard to the spontaneous eruption, or "birth" if you will, of the universe...is it due to "natural" forces or someother force (i.e., God). For that matter, take it a step further and ask yourself is there really any difference in the concept of energy having always existed or a God as having always existed? There is no answer. Logically, there is really no difference between belief and nonbelief...which is why a lot of scientists are agnostic.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      well, t bwgin, I was thinking of Christianity specifically. Christianity teaches God created the Earth around which was absolutlely Nothing. So, before Earth there was Nothing. Therefore, to find life on another planet implies the Genesis story is a load of krap.
      Evolution is also an outright refudiation of the Genesis story. If the Bibles stories are lies, then all of religion is a lie.
      I am a scientist. I understand one can be agnostic, but one cannot possibly believe in Christianity and be a scientist simultaneously. There might be a God, but if there is it has absolutely nothing to do with the religion of Chsitianity.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • David in Cincinnati

      RV1982 I don't think the relevant question is about "a God as having always existed". You simply have an empty definition of God as energy. The question is "Does He talk to us and care and maybe save us from death?"

      Mike, I know a lot of scientists who believe in Christianity. Not all scientists are evidence-driven all the time.

      June 25, 2011 at 4:58 am | Report abuse |
  9. thes33k3r

    Science!

    June 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. regertz

    So fun that the really rocking part of the Solar System is out past Mars. I can remember reading as a kid Kuiper's account of the giant planets and their moons as merely dead, frozen balls of ice and gas. Now the question is, given the likelihood of life elsewhere even in our system, where are the other civilizations? And should we be heeding Stephen Hawking and hesitate about meeting them too quickly. My guess is there are probably plenty of life-bearing worlds but few surviving civilizations and almost no, perhaps thank goodness, star-faring ones.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Believer

    It's God's creation given to us to explore.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sid

      Who is talking about God here? Why are you so insecure that you have to feed your belief into a sophisticated scientific discussion?

      June 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • pleasedotell

      And like the typical ungrateful, spoiled kids we are, we take it, no "thank you", play w/ it, break it, & then demand another.

      June 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sid

      Word "explore" means "to seek for". How could you come up with a conclusion of God without exploring?

      June 24, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. pleasedotell

    Yay, another planet to destroy. I call deforestation

    June 24, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Interplexer

      and how exactly are you going to de-forest a moon of ice yo?

      June 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Arran Webb

    "...a second genesis in our solar system." Metaphorically speaking. By definition there is one Genesis only.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  14. bankermanq

    Isn't the Lord great? He'd put life on a desolate rock so far away just to test my faith!

    June 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Unlike Mike

    Mike, Just because life is probable across the cosmos, it doesn't mean God wasn't involved there too. Some religions may still cling to the earth as the center of everything belief, but many are happy to embrace scientific advances to add to the understanding of how amazingly complex and beautiful all of creation truly is. All of scienctific understanding still begins the universe as: in the beginning there was nothing than there was form and darkness and void, than there was light...

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

      No Mike, that is a highly simplified version of what "all of scientific understanding" has to say on the matter.

      June 24, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Interplexer

      you fool, WE are the GODS. now cower as I beat you with my GOD stick.

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

      SB, Yes highly simplified, I know, but no one I have read about has come up with a testable theory as to what was before the universe, or what began it all.

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

      That doesn't mean there is a God. if there is a God, what was before God? Then you say "God is omnipotent and existed for al ltime" which is not an answer, it's just a cop-out. It's just saying you are not going to try to understand, that it is too complicated, so you'll just call it a God.

      Science isn't event a "thing". Science is merely the act of stufying things to figure them out. Science doesn't advance, science is not a belief system. It's the practice of studying blindly and not chalking up complex behaviors to a God.

      It is no different to be able to accept that the Universe "just exists" than it is to think think that God "just exists". Either the Universe was created by a god that just exists, or the universe just exists. What's the difference?

      A nice thing about science is it can be proven. The God story is a story that can't be proven, by definition it cannot be proven. Followers of "The Matrix" are every bit as believable as followers of a monotheistic God.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      And look at you, taking to personal insults like Unlike Mike. Always the vestage of the weak-minded fool. Always the religious are the instigators of violence, and are always afraid of anyone who doesn't agree with their beliefs. One day society will evolve and there won't be any more dealing with crazy religious people.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unlike Mike

      Mike, You posted "watch the continuing antics of retarded, murderous religous nuts and the negative impact they have on all of society." I took the name 'Unlike Mike' as in: "unlike Mike, I don't think that being religious makes you a retarded murderous nut with a negative impact on all of society. You went to the name calling, I didn't. Please don't accuse me of something I never did. I didn't call you any names or insult your statements, I just made a rebuttal to your blanket statement about religious people. I follow science, I support science, I believe in God.That doesn't make me crazy.

      June 25, 2011 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
    • David in Cincinnati

      Unlike Mike It doesn't make you crazy, but makes you inconsistent, sort-of, human. And concepts like "what was before the universe, or what began it all" might also be purely human misconceptions as to what time is.

      June 25, 2011 at 5:06 am | Report abuse |
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