Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Wardy"

Saturn moon spewing water vapor

Thu Mar 9, 2006 5:19 PM ET
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One of Saturn's moons, Enceladus, is spewing out a giant plume of water vapor that is probably feeding one of the planet's rings, scientists said on Thursday.

The findings, published in the journal Science, suggest that tiny Enceladus could have a liquid ocean under its icy surface which in theory could sustain primitive life, similar to Jupiter's moon Europa. The plume was spotted by Cassini, a joint U.S.-European spacecraft that is visiting Saturn.

"We realize that this is a radical conclusion -- that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

"However, if we are right, we have significantly broadened the diversity of solar system environments where we might possibly have conditions suitable for living organisms."

Scientists have long known that many of Saturn's moons have water. They took an especially close look at Enceladus because it seemed to have a smooth surface -- suggesting recent geological activity that, in turn, could mean liquid water.

Liquid water is a key requirement for life. Several moons have been found to have evidence of liquid water and the chemical elements needed to make life, including Europa. But scientists are far more intrigued by the plume itself, a gigantic geyser of water vapor and tiny ice particles.

"It's basically this giant plume of gas coming out of the south pole of Enceladus," Candy Hansen of NASA'S Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said in a telephone interview.

"The plume is half the size of the moon. It's huge," said Hansen, a planetary scientist. "Water is being spewed out of this moon. It solves some real mysteries that we have been struggling with over the years."