March 9, 2006

WATER ON ENCELADUS?

The surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus is composed mostly of water ice and there may be a cold ocean beneath that holds some form of life, according to studies of images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft last year.

“Any life that existed could not be luxuriant and would have to deal with low temperatures, feeble metabolic energy and perhaps a severe chemical environment,” said Jeffrey Kargel of the hydrology and water resources department at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Nevertheless we cannot discount the possibility that Enceladus might be life’s distant outpost.”

Images show a plume of gases and water spouting from the moon’s southern pole, similar to the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park in the western U.S., said Andrew Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini imaging team and an atmospheric scientist at the California Institute of Technology. . . .

Other moons, such as Jupiter’s Europa, have oceans covered by ice more than a kilometer thick. On Enceladus, pockets of liquid water may be as close as 10 meters below the surface, Ingersoll said.

The underground reservoirs may hold some extreme form of life, Kargel said.

Very cool.

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