The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 59.0°F | Partly Cloudy

Cassini Scientists Discover Liquid Water on Saturn Moon Enceladus

By Kenneth Chang

The discovery of eruptions of liquid water on a little-known moon of Saturn has added it to the small, highly select group of places in the solar system that could plausibly support life.

The moon, Enceladus (pronounced en-SELL-ah-dus), is only 300 miles wide, and planetary scientists expected that it would be nothing more than a frozen chunk of ice and rock. Instead, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has spotted the eruptions.

“It’s startling,” said Dr. Carolyn C. Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., leader of the imaging team for Cassini. A package of 11 scientific papers about Enceladus appears in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. “I wouldn’t be surprised see to the planetary community clamoring for a future exploratory expedition to land on the south polar terrain of Enceladus,” said Porco, lead author of one of the Science papers. “We have found an environment that is potentially suitable for living organisms.”

Life requires at least three essential ingredients — water, heat and carbon-based molecules — and Enceladus may possess all three. As Cassini flew through the plumes of tiny ice crystals rising into space from the eruptions, it also detected simple carbon-based molecules like methane and carbon dioxide, which suggest more complicated carbon molecules might lie on the moon’s surface.

The lack of a crater suggests that the heat is not the result of a meteor impact. Based on the initial observations, some scientists think that this warm region near the south pole may have somehow persisted for millions or billions of years, sufficient time for life to arise.

“It’s an exciting place,” said James W. Head III, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University, who was not involved with any of the research reported in Science. “That’s what exploration is all about. You go out there. It isn’t A. It isn’t B. It isn’t C. It’s D, none of the above.”