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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

New Views of an Extraterrestrial Ocean

New Views of an Extraterrestrial Ocean

Spacecraft to Check if a Moon of Saturn, Though Cold, Might Have Life

Author: Reilly Capps/Tuesday, October 27, 2015/Categories: space science

[Image: From NASA's Cassini, a picture of Enceladus behind Saturn's rings.]

Much of America lost interest in space after Apollo. But the discoveries since have been stunning. 

About 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the Cassini Spacecraft will fly through the geysers of one of Saturn's moon, gathering evidence about the possibility of life in a sub-surface ocean. 

The moon, Enceladus, is one of the solar system's most fascinating heavenly bodies. It has a global, liquid water ocean deep below its surface ice. As Saturn's gravity pulls on Enceladus, it causes friction inside the moon. This heats the water and rockets it out through cracks in the ice. Here's a picture:

These geysers are concentrated near the south pole of Enceladus; Cassini will shoot through them just 30 miles above the surface. 

"The plume of Enceladus is continually erupting," said Linda Spilker, Cassini Project Scientist, on a conference call yesterday. "We can address how habitable is that ocean." 

As NASA peels back the layers of Enceladus, it keeps finding an environment that could be cozy for life. Life as we know it needs three things: liquid water, energy and organic matter. NASA has found the first two. This fly-by will look for carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen. The believe that the salty ocean might have a pH of 9 to 12, which is wa range life likes. 

"This is a very big step in exploring ocean worlds in our solar system," said Curt Niebur, Cassini Program Scientist. 

Here is a short beautiful presentation by Carolyn Porco, Cassini's lead imaging scientist, on Enceladus's life possibilities. 

Someday we might send a robot to fly through the geysers, gather the water and bring it back to Earth. Or we might send a robot to use a laser or nuclear heat to drill down into the ocean. Enceladus is a jewelry box; there may be diamonds inside; the intellectual and ... spiritual ... implications could be brilliant.  

"If life arose twice in one solar system, the implications for how often it arises throughout the solar system are profound," said Niebur. 

Here's NASA's overview. 

And here, because she is one of the best science communicators since Carl Sagan, is Carolyn Porco's stunning thoughts on space exploration, edited beautifully. 


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