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. Ronny Gidlund

    We cannot support the 7 billion lives on Earth with quality, why oh why should we waste blood and treasure to go to a moon of Saturn until the greedy elite's of Earth give up the slave-holders grip on humanity here on Earth!??? A balanced paradigm here is more important!!! Then we can look to the stars together!!

    June 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Toxic

      Because to many earthlings are parasites. Maybe we can find hard working productive organisms on a Saturn moon.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Drew Hendon

      Seriously?!? Who cares about Saturns Moon? The United States unemployment rate is steady at 9% right now! Most families cant support their children and this garbage is making news?!?

      June 24, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Someone get Ronny his medicine

      Take a deep breath. The elites are sending someone out to help you out...

      June 24, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • EWGuy

      If every great exploration and colonization had to wait until every man woman and child was healthy, happy and gainfully employed or educated, we'd still be stuck stabbing gazelles with sticks.

      The only future of our species is in space. Get over it, or get gladly left behind.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      It seems that paying a team to design, build, launch and support a complex probe would be considered employment. As I recall, employment is one of the factors that contributes to reducing unemployment.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard

      Because the advancement of science in the long run is more important than supporting a few more non-productive rodents on Earth.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Julie

      I think the answer to your question lies in the first line of your post – "We cannot support the 7 billion lives on Earth with quality..."
      You're right, we can't. And the reason we can't is partly due to our population outgrowing Earths resources – but it's also partly due to our own pettiness. I'm not suggesting that the notion of colonizing other worlds is the solution to our problems. But to me, the search for life elsewhere and understanding of the universe we live in represents something very important about the nurturing and development of the human intellect, and our intellect is the language of our souls.
      My politics are decidedly left, and I agree with you about the disparity and carelessness with which we treat each other, but I don't think stamping out space exploration is the answer. Our problems here are caused by our greed and ignorance and cruelty. No amount of banging our intellect against the problems of those determined to destroy themselves or others will change things. So let our greatest scientific minds reach outward, the money it costs would just be used to line some warlords pockets if we threw it at the other stuff.
      Controlling our population, taking some pressure off resources and valuing life more would be a good start. How do we do it? I dunno, but I don't think cursing the telescopes will do us any good.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • C. Smythe

      Primitive societies will crash into the now with absolute evidence of life elsewhere. Modern society is not resposible for over population. Primitive culture and ancient religion are resposible. We need this science more than you can understand . . . now . . . go back to church!

      June 24, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • unretired05

      If they can be slave holders here why not be slave holders there. Another place to drill baby drill.

      June 24, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Edwin

      When Columbus set out, Spain was facing economic disaster. It is true that those who funded the expedition hoped it would be profitable, but the first voyage was not the lucrative one. What made Spain a super power was the fact that they were positioned to capitalize on the New World more quickly than the other European countries - simply because they explored it first.

      Put more simply: discovering actual life on this moon would revolutionize biology and medicine. It could possibly help in ways we cannot even imagine now.

      You do not put science or exploration on hold in a weak economy - you invest MORE in them.

      June 24, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Allen

      So said the shamens of easter island until they had not enough wood to fashion a boat and cast thier ilk from the failings of thier fragile island and the people parished as some soght balance and other abused resources. Thier will be no balance on this planet until we are able to cast masses from this island to another resourse.

      June 24, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Hey Sup

    Hehehe....spewing.......

    June 24, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Hehehe....all over your face......

      June 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karen

      Peter Griffin and Quagmire. hehehehe

      June 24, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marlye

      hehehe, hehehe, hehehe, and another hehehe~ Peter Griffin while dancing at an 80's club.

      June 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. SB

    What's beautiful and amazing about this is that Saturn itself, being a ball of gas outside the Sun's habitable zone, is not a good candidate for supporting life. But if the moons of such a body can support life, then the door has just been kicked wide open. Now we must look at the growing list of known exoplanets which themselves are not good candidates for life, and wonder seriously about what sorts of moons they might have orbiting around them.

    What a fantastic time to be alive.

    June 24, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      Ah, poor phrasing on my part. I meant something more along the lines of, even the subset of the exoplanet list that ordinarily wouldn't be considered good candidates.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Well said SB

      Great point. This could be a game-changer.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      Props on taking the time to clarify a fine point of your statement. Most people on these forums are more concerned with being right than they are about actually being understood.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jeremy

    If by some chance there are aliens do we get to call them Enchiladas? 😉

    June 24, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • casualumberjack

      lol, yes

      June 24, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. tayronachan

    Earth first!!!!!!! We'll get the rest of the planets later.

    June 24, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Piki112

    well they couldn't have evolved to our level simply because they would have eventually used radio waves, which we could have intercepted. Our signal (stuff like radio or tv) stretches out a good 50 LY out into space, which an intelligent species could have intercepted, using the proper equipment. It would be crazy to think that any race wouldn't have at one point in it's existance used technology similar to ours.

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

      Actually, that's not quite true. Our radio waves go out about as far as the heliopause, or boundary where the solar wind meets extrasolar space, as far as I understand it. That's due to background interference from radiation. The signal decreases sharply from there until it's completely garbled. That might explain why SETI hasn't found anything.

      June 24, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. 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 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. UNKNOWN

    NASA IS NOT GOING TO TELL US WHAT THEY REALY FIND – COME ON PEOPLE – ITS A NEED TO KNOW BASIS AND A MATTER OF NATIONAL SECURITY – THE DOUGHNUT EATERS WILL KNOW NOTHING – EVER

    June 24, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Seth

    Sodium and potassium are not salts. The author needs to do some more homework.
    I'm fascinated by stories like this but would appreciate accurate information.

    June 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • UNKNOWN

      good thing you told us- doughnut eaters like me dont know chemestry.

      June 24, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unlike Mike

      "The chemical compound potassium chloride (KCl) is a metal halide salt composed of potassium and chlorine. Sodium chloride, also known as salt, common salt, table salt or halite, is an ionic compound with the formula NaCl"

      June 24, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
  10. UNKNOWN

    DO YOU THINK ALL THEY REALY FOUND WAS SALT? – COME ON! – REALY?!

    June 24, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
  11. robert barnes

    We know life exist else where besides planet earth. The human race know we're not alone in this universe. There's in-
    telligents beings million of years ahead of us. Their intelligents is beyond and expand the universe.There are so many
    unexplainable things that baffles earths scientist. Earth needs to prepare itself for whats too come. Earths scientist should informed the Human Race that they are not alone in this universe. They are ready , the time is now!

    June 24, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
  12. John

    The cat is slowly but surely being let out of the bag. The universe is full of life and they've know it for a long time.

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

      AT LAST A MAN OF MY OWN HEART – THANK YOU FOR FINALY STATING THIS – i WAS HOPING SOMEONE WOULD!!!

      June 24, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jack

    Haha, this is funny, in the past, we always thought Aliens would come invade us with UFOs and things like that. Finding UFO crashes, this is the exact opposite. Of course we cannot treat 7 billion people on the Earth with quality that is why this moon is being revealed to us. Now in the future when we develope sophisticated technology, we will be invading that moon and studying it. Some of our ships will crash, like UFOs that were thought to have crashed on Earth a long time ago. The only modern movie of humans invading another planet is James Cameron's Avatar.

    June 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • UNKNOWN

      Give the UFOs time – we havent been here that long at all – and I am guessing we will be doing the most grashing since out tech stinks.

      June 24, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      Yea, we do need time to develope the technology, but I didn't say right away, I gave the example Avatar for a purpose, in Avatar, they start the time in like 2150 something, but it took them like 4 years just to get to Jupiter's moon.

      June 24, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Some Random Dude

    @Drew Hendon
    idiot.
    that is all.

    June 24, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dean

    Another one of Dr. Porco's fantasies. Even if there was life, it would be deeper inside the moon, not on the outside where the spacecraft lands.

    June 24, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      Perhaps you should have read the article before commenting. The water is blasting out and leaving deposits on the surface. Can you work out the rest?

      June 24, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unlike Mike

      The residue of what is being left on the surface would give us the best chance to inspect, test and sample what is below the ice, as we do not currently have the probe technology to go below the ice.

      June 24, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
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