It might be ‘snowing microbes’ on one of Saturn’s moons

Eric Pfeiffer

A NASA scientist says there's a good chance of finding extraterrestrial life inhabiting one of Saturn's tiny orbiting moons.

"More than 90 jets of all sizes near Enceladus's south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds all over the place," says Carolyn Porco, an award-winning planetary scientist and leader of the Imaging Science team for NASA's Cassini spacecraft. "Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth's oceans."

NASA says the watery jets are erupting through icy cracks in a "vast underground sea" on this moon's surface. And the sea may be home to microbes similar to those found in some of the deepest parts of our own planet's oceans. While there is no direct sunlight reaching beneath the surface, Saturn's own orbit may be creating enough heat beneath the surface of Enceladus to helped create the tiny life-forms.

When filmmaker James Cameron returned from his historic voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench this week, he said the virtually unexplored depths reminded him of an isolated lunar landscape.

But since the watery jets of Enceladus are spewing with enough velocity to reach into outer space, astronauts may not even need to make a heralding voyage to Enceladus, or beneath its icy surface.

"It's erupting out into space where we can sample it. It sounds crazy but it could be snowing microbes on the surface of this little world," Porco said. "In the end, it is the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search. We don't even need to go scratching around on the surface. We can fly through the plume and sample it."

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