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March 27, 2008

Carbonated water, with essence of natural gas...

Posted: 08:45 AM ET

That's what Cassini spacecraft scientists had to say about what's in those cold water geysers shooting off from the pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus (that's pronounced "in-SELL-uh-dus").

Jet Blue. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The Cassini team was stunned to discover the geysers two years ago when the probe made its first flyby of the tiny moon. Then on March 12th, they got another chance to point their science instruments at the billowing plume during another close approach, passing just 120 miles from the surface. This time the optical cameras took a back seat to a suite of spectrographs designed to "taste and smell" what chemicals are present.

The team has just announced the initial science findings. It turns out the jets are mostly water vapor, with some ice crystals mixed in. Also present are methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and an abundance of both simple and complex organic chemicals.

Another instrument on board measured the temperatures at the fissures where the geysers erupt from the surface. Turns out it gets up to a hot and balmy -130 degrees Fahrenheit there. OK, that's pretty cold. But it is significantly warmer than the -300 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures elsewhere on that moon. The researchers say some sort of heat source deep within the planet must be at work, and that underground pockets of liquid water very likely exist - maybe even relatively close to the surface.

So what does it all mean? The moon has water, organic compounds, and a heat source...and that makes it a prime hunting ground for astrobiologists (scientists who look for signs of extraterrestrial life). They don't know at this point if that underground liquid water exists, and they certainly don't know if any sort of microbial life form may be living there. But you can bet they're excited about it!

Cassini will flyby Enceladus again in August.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Astrobiology • Enceladus • NASA • Saturn • Space


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WS   March 28th, 2008 1:21 am ET

I know their is an obsession with Mars, but there are so many moons in our solar system with better prospects for simple life...


Donald   March 28th, 2008 1:32 am ET

This is a close enough location we may actually be able to study hands on. This is exciting.


Mr. Spock   March 28th, 2008 3:34 am ET

This moon is the biggest mystery in the Solar System, even more so than Titan! A small 300 mile wide ice-ball orbiting Saturn, which possibly has life lurking underneath its surface. I am happy that we will continue studying this incredible moon and unlock more of its secrets. I still want to know more about the HEXAGON on Saturn's North Pole, what is creating that shape and sustaining it for so long?


Donald   April 1st, 2008 12:30 am ET

A Hexagon on Saturn? Really. Where can I learn more about that? Sounds like some crystalization has taken place.


Mr. Spock   April 2nd, 2008 1:47 am ET

Yep, Don, the Hexagon, it's really spooky, weird stuff. Still no good explanation for it. The Universe show on History channel features it. It is also easily searchable on Youtube and Wikipedia. Just search Saturn Hexagon.


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elmer fudd   October 11th, 2008 5:46 pm ET

they said it is where science, religion, money and politics collide, so o.k. we get out there with our drilling riggs, and no doubt we find a lot of minerals ect and our drilling crews find organic molecules, so what does that really tell us in the -130 degree heat and the -300 degree cold, i suppose if there was going to be space travellers there would be some very important necessaties that would be needed there , while it is fascinating and interesting, is it really worth the cost spent on the program , i do not mind other people believeing there is intelligent life out there some where , but i have not seen UFO,s or space ALIENS to suggest that there is, would you not think that after travelling all that way that they would not stop in, like land , hello, greetings, come see us when you have time, i can imagine mars or the moon as stop over points if there is going to be space travelling , but is it of any other value than that?


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