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Cassini Finds Evidence of Water 167

Posted by Zonk
from the hey-there-little-space-buddies dept.
CheshireCatCO writes "Scientists working on the Cassini Mission think that they have found compelling evidence for the existence of liquid water at the south pole of the moon Enceladus. In addition to the obvious puzzles relating to how temperatures can be held high enough for liquid water, the presence of water, as well as the detection of organic molecules, opens up the possibility for life at Enceladus's south polar region. The findings are to appear in the 10 March issue of the journal, Science"
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Cassini Finds Evidence of Water

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  • by tverbeek (457094) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:18PM (#14885203) Homepage
    1. Send equipment to southern Enceladus

    2. Bottle the icy-cold water

    3. Ship bottles to Earth

    4. Sell "Enceladus Springs" at outrageous prices

    5. (Need I say more?)

  • by nmccart (952969) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:18PM (#14885208) Homepage
    All these worlds
    Are yours except
    Europa
    Attempt no
    Landing there
    Use them together
    Use them in peace
    • So he was right, except it was Enceladus, after all...
    • All these worlds
      Are yours except
      Europa
      Attempt no
      Landing there
      Use them together
      Use them in peace
      Naww... that was just for Jupiter. It's a free-for-all on Saturn's moons.
      • by Etcetera (14711) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:49PM (#14885481) Homepage
        Ironically enough, the original 2001: A Space Odyssey story (it remains this way in the novel) has them visiting Saturn, NOT Jupiter. Supposedly it was changed in the movie because the effects people ended up not being able to make a convincing Saturn. IIRC the Monolith is on the moon Iapetus [wikipedia.org] -- a black dot visited smack in the middle of the extraordinarily high contrast between its faces.

        Clarke's 2010(+) novels follow the cinematic version and keep them visiting Jupiter.
        • Acording to Clarke's notes in the copy of 2001 I have Kubrick decided to drop Saturn because he didn't want to confuse the viewers about where the Monolith was, plus try explaining a gravity slingshot manuver to joe sixpack moviegoer.

          Your dead on about Iapetus though, when the first images where sent back from Voyager 1 showing the moon exactly as Clarke had described it, right down to the black dot (in the book its the Monolith)in the middle Carl Sagan promptly sent a copy of the image to Clarke with the
    • by Tackhead (54550) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:32PM (#14885330)
      > All these worlds
      > Are yours except
      > Europa
      > Attempt no
      > Landing there
      > Use them together
      > Use them in peace

      All these world
      Are belong to you
      Except Enceladus
      Move no Zig there
      For great justice
      And because it will get wet

  • Great! (Score:4, Funny)

    by christopher240240 (633932) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:20PM (#14885228)
    That's the perfect place for me and my rag-tag band of misfit rebels to establish a secret base! I just hope that taun-taun life is sustainable there.
  • Saturn (Score:3, Informative)

    by Illbay (700081) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:21PM (#14885233) Journal
    It should be noted that Enceladus is a moon of the planet Saturn.

    Yeah, I know a *true geek* such as typically is found on /. will know this without looking it up, but for those afraid to ask...

    • Re:Saturn (Score:5, Informative)

      by conJunk (779958) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:32PM (#14885327)
      Yeah, I know a *true geek* such as typically is found on /. will know this without looking it up, but for those afraid to ask...

      Well, we didn't even need to get the name of the mood, we *all* know where the Casini probe is and what it's doing...

    • Re:Saturn (Score:4, Informative)

      by meringuoid (568297) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:43PM (#14885420)
      It should be noted that Enceladus is a moon of the planet Saturn. Yeah, I know a *true geek* such as typically is found on /. will know this without looking it up, but for those afraid to ask...

      A true geek might not be expected to know all the moons of the Solar System - I confess I would have had only a 50% chance of getting Enceladus right - but he would certainly be expected to know that the Cassini spacecraft is in orbit around Saturn. Has been for about five years, IIRC. Thus we are unlikely to hear reports of major discoveries made by Cassini about moons of Jupiter, or perhaps of Neptune.

    • Re:Saturn (Score:4, Interesting)

      by dotslash (12419) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:58PM (#14885570) Homepage
      Also notable: This finding is more puzzling because Enceladus is not thought to have "volcanic" activity. It is too small and cold to sustain a molten core, or plate tectonics. Which makes this finding the ultimate irony, since Enceladus is the ancient greek god/giant of volcanos, who was burried under mount Etna, hence the volcano there.

      When they named Enceladus, the moon was considered incapable of sustaining volcanic activity, but maybe the name changed all that!
  • H2O? (Score:5, Funny)

    by imstanny (722685) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:22PM (#14885245)
    Do they know that it's Water as in H2O or simply a liquidy viscuous substance that shoots from a small opening at the tip of the moon?
    • Re:H2O? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Cybrex (156654) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:29PM (#14885311)
      It's H2O. They've been able to specifically identify the Hydrogen and Oxygen, and the ratio is correct.
      • That, or it's a rather unforunate solution of liquid oxygen and hydrogen bubbles.

        (is that even possible?)

        Don't light a match.
    • simply a liquidy viscuous substance that shoots from a small opening at the tip

      Judging by current replies to this post as well as its moderation (+2 Interesting), am I the only one that has my mind in the gutter? I have to believe that the OP was trying to be at least a little suggestive...

    • Maybe . . . (Score:3, Funny)

      by ndansmith (582590)
      Do they know that it's Water as in H2O or simply a liquidy viscuous substance that shoots from a small opening at the tip of the moon?

      It's oil. Now we can get our petrol without having to rely on those unstable sources like Canada.

    • There are plenty of worlds we have discovered with liquids.. generally liquid oxygen and whatnot.. I'd have to guess they know what they are doing. Either way from what I can gather its just above 0C that these are occuring, too warm for liquid gases, and liquids of most other substances are much heavier and generally don't plume up at small temperature changes.
  • by GillBates0 (664202)
    ...while I run out to light up my giant "WELCOME TO EARTH" sign.
  • by digitaldc (879047) * on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:24PM (#14885255)
    In the spring of 2008, scientists will get another chance to look at Enceladus when Cassini flies within 350 kilometers (approximately 220 miles), but much work remains after Cassini's four-year prime mission is over.

    We need a closer look, but it would be interesting to gather some samples of this water and see if it contains microorganisms of any kind.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:40PM (#14885394)
      The practicality of sending a probe to the surface of a far-flung moon for remote experimentation or return payload for terrestrial experimentation aside, the worry with such a procedure would be contamination. The Galileo Spacecraft [wikipedia.org] was plowed into Jupiter's atmosphere to prevent any earth-bound contaminants from entering Europa, another planetoid that's on the short list of places that are likely to be able to support life. Some might see it as a grand irony if our experiment to find out if there's life on Enceladus, only to find that earth-bound microorganisms take seed there and multiply. It's an entirely different irony if the probe ends up being toxic to the indigenous life.

      So, do we sit back, millions of miles away, speculating as to whether life exists there, or endanger the life we seek to discover by "getting a closer look" to see if it exists? Quite a conundrum, isn't it?
      • The practicality of sending a probe to the surface of a far-flung moon for remote experimentation or return payload for terrestrial experimentation aside, the worry with such a procedure would be contamination.

        But why not just do something similar to the Mars rovers? Have a self-contained laboratory that can do all the necessary analysis there. It'd probably be a lot cheaper than trying to retrieve a sample and return it here, and you wouldn't have to worry about contamination, etc.
        • by Kjella (173770) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @05:25PM (#14885843) Homepage
          But why not just do something similar to the Mars rovers? Have a self-contained laboratory that can do all the necessary analysis there. It'd probably be a lot cheaper than trying to retrieve a sample and return it here, and you wouldn't have to worry about contamination, etc.

          Well, if all you had to care about was contaminating the sample you took, what's the big worry? The worry is that microorganisms are incredibly resistant and could survive the trip from Earth to the moon. In fact, there are whole theories about earth being seeded by microorganisms from an asteroid although I consider those pretty far out. But it doesn't get any better by the fact that a) it's coming from a place we know is full of microorganisms, b) space probes travel much shorter, c) land more gentle, d) need radiation shielding and livable operating temperatures. You can read more here [wikipedia.org] about how hard these bastards are to kill. Sending a probe there would be almost as much a medical task (sterilization, contaminant detection, seals) as space travel.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 09, 2006 @05:39PM (#14885972)
          The practicality of sending a probe to the surface of a far-flung moon for remote experimentation or return payload for terrestrial experimentation aside, the worry with such a procedure would be contamination.

          But why not just do something similar to the Mars rovers? Have a self-contained laboratory that can do all the necessary analysis there. It'd probably be a lot cheaper than trying to retrieve a sample and return it here, and you wouldn't have to worry about contamination, etc.

          Firstly, sending a self-contained labratory to do experiments there on the moon's surface is sending a probe to the surface of a far-flung moon for remote experimentation, which was the first option mentioned in the snippet you quoted.

          Also, note that this in no way removes the chance of contamination, it probably increases the chance. Even though these probes are assembled in clean rooms and every attempt is made NOT to contaminate the probe prior to flight, it's impossible to make sure that the probe is 100% free of earthborn life. Airborne viruses might get caught inside the probe, and could wreak havoc on the alien biology, for instance. Other posts here illustrate the problems of microorganisms, but the problem isn't necessarily that our microbes could taint their microbes; the very probe itself could very well contaminate the moon on its own. Remember, the probe very likely would NOT be chemically inert; it could poison the water that it touches. A probe sitting on the surface of a planet for all eternity will degrade and erode. Obviously this is purely hypothetical, but imagine that part of this probe was lead. If a chunk of lead fell into our drinking water, we'd suffer consequences and eventually succumb to lead poisoning. Lead is poisonous to us to some degree, and we can't be overexposed to it. Well, what is poisonous to extraterrestial life that we're investigating? How do we make sure that there's nothing we leave on that planet that damages the ecosystem?

          Alternatively, let's assume that we can send a probe which is totally inert and nonthreatening to the moon's environment. We have the possibility of creating something akin to a artificial reef [wikipedia.org], as life grows around the probe and becomes dependent on it. Are we trying to seed life, encourage life, or study life? Where do we cross the line between letting life grow as it may and interfering with its evolution?
          • Other posts here illustrate the problems of microorganisms, but the problem isn't necessarily that our microbes could taint their microbes; the very probe itself could very well contaminate the moon on its own.

            Well, given Enceladus' location, there should be a lot of exposure to metallic meteorites including more lead and other heavy metals than you could possibly cram on a probe.

          • If we found life on this moon, and our probe destryed it all, it likely had a very fragile grip anyway, and likely wouldn't have lasted. Also, if we found life on this moon, it would indicate that life in space is likely common. That being the case, one moon in the long run would not be a huge deal. This of course is a worse case scenerio. You can be sure that this worse case scenerio would also lead to massive support by the public to increase space exploration.
          • Are we trying to seed life, encourage life, or study life?

            Accomplishing any of the above would be pretty remarkable, and a success.
        • The practicality of sending a probe to the surface of a far-flung moon for remote experimentation or return payload for terrestrial experimentation aside, the worry with such a procedure would be contamination.

          But why not just do something similar to the Mars rovers? Have a self-contained laboratory that can do all the necessary analysis there. It'd probably be a lot cheaper than trying to retrieve a sample and return it here, and you wouldn't have to worry about contamination, etc.

          You don't have to wor

      • by Anonymous Coward
        Apples and oranges. The Galileo Spacecraft was plowed into Jupiter's atmosphere because it wasn't properly decontaminated (not needed for something that stays in space and takes pictures). Equipment that is meant to land and search for life will obviously be decontaminated.
      • The practicality of sending a probe to the surface of a far-flung moon for remote experimentation or return payload for terrestrial experimentation aside, the worry with such a procedure would be contamination.

        Actually, part of the beauty of this discovery is that we wouldn't necessarily have to do that, because it seems that the geyser system on Enceladus is shooting liquid water (and whatever it contains) all around the Saturn system. From a piece of commentary by James Oberg on Why the Enceladus discover [msn.com]
    • In the spring of 2008, scientists will get another chance to look at Enceladus when Cassini flies within 350 kilometers (approximately 220 miles)

      Actually, the new altitude for that flyby will be 25 km. Boo Yah!
  • by spanklin (710953) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:26PM (#14885287)
    I teach astronomy, and I just tried to go to Cassini's website for some information for a presentation I'm giving next week. When I found the Cassini website down with some strange error, I clicked over to /. to check the news until their site comes back up. Lo and behold, the first story on /. is about Cassini.

    Did you all purposely do this?

    • Yes and no. We never mean to break anything, but it happens all the same. It's called the /. effect.
    • by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:41PM (#14885398) Homepage
      Well, ciclops.org is feeling the load quite badly at the moment. We're still on a single T1 and we're serving up a lot of very large images at the moment. Apologies if the site is slow or unresponsive. (And we're working on getting another line, but... bureaucracy is happening.)
    • I teach astronomy, and I just tried to go to Cassini's website for some information for a presentation I'm giving next week. When I found the Cassini website down with some strange error, I clicked over to /. to check the news until their site comes back up. Lo and behold, the first story on /. is about Cassini.
      Did you all purposely do this?


      Isn't it common knowledge that /. is really a diabolically clever sceme hatched by a group af evil hackers with the intention of harnessing the insatiable curiosity of t
    • He's had a banner running on this for several hours before /.
      • Largely because he leaked the story before the embargo (set by the journal in this case, I believe) was lifted.

        But we knew that he is an asshat, so this hardly tells us anything we didn't know.
        • Don't tell me anyone really expects him to respect an embargo, do they?

          PS: I expected to see Carolyn Porco or at least some NASA PR flack on NASA TV at 11am PST with this. Instead they were just running some grainy archival stuff that looked circa Gemini. disappointing.
          • We've had all three major networks in here already. (We've been joking around the office that we might get someone from The Daily Show in to do a story, but that's mainly wishful thinking.) So keep an eye out for her on the news tonight.

            And, no, I didn't expect Drudge to behave. I didn't expect him to care about this story at all, to the extent that I thought about him. (Which is "not at all.") Still, one wonders if there isn't some action that can be taken for breaking a news embargo.
            • If you're an organization that has favours it can dole out to the media, you can ensure to dole out those favours to somebody else for a little while until they get the message - for instance, if you're the White House and one of the TV networks breaks an embargo, you feed your next few juicy leaks to the other networks.

              Less powerful organizations can simply refuse to pass on any more embargoed stories to the individual who breaks the embargo; it's a judgement call as to whether that's going to be worthwhil

  • I'd love to see a rover there.

    Wonder what is causing the warm temps.

  • by Rob T Firefly (844560) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:34PM (#14885354) Homepage Journal
    ...it's an Evian station!
  • I for one, welcome our Cassinian Microbial Overlords.
  • Yeah, sure... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Wavicle (181176) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:44PM (#14885431)
    1) Suggest a possible discovery of liquid water out there
    2) Make allusion to possibility of life emerging there
    3) ???
    4) Grant Funding!

    I'm as much a fan of discovery as the next scientifically minded person, but this has become a little tired in recent years. Every time a possible discovery of liquid water creeps up, the potential for life always follows in the very next paragraph if not the next sentence. One would wonder what would happen if we found a vast reservoir of liquid water but no life in it. I imagine some segment of astrobiology would be so incredulous as to insist on probing it until an earth born microbe manages to survive the trip and contaminate the discovery.

    When I was first reading this I thought "Wow, wouldn't it be interesting to figure out how liquid water could have existed there." Then came the inevitable "hey, maybe there's life there!" I just gave up. The conditions for liquid water are remarkable enough, do we need to include the outrageously small probability of life developing before we've looked at the more answerable questions like "where's the heat coming from?"
    • by WillAffleckUW (858324) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:57PM (#14885557) Homepage Journal
      1) Suggest a possible discovery of liquid water out there
      2) Make allusion to possibility of life emerging there
      3) ???
      4) Grant Funding!


      Well, the avian-human transmission of influenza was actually discovered by a research scientist who wanted an excuse to go surfing in Australia, so he proposed a grant to study if seabirds were a reservoir for influenza that infects humans.

      Turns out they were. Plus, he got some good surf in.

      So, maybe we should investigate the surfing potential of this moon, and maybe we'll discover a cure for cancer ...
    • Re:Yeah, sure... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @05:04PM (#14885624) Homepage
      The water thing is tired because the Mars community has over-done it pretty badly. This is a case where liquid water should not exist (based on what we know right now), so it's pretty remarkable.

      I mentioned the possiblity of life only because of the detection of organic molecules. Frankly, I think that the odds of life are quite slim, but this discovery *does* add Enceladus to a rather short list of good places to look. Even if there is no life, we can learn a lot about the abiotic formation of organics and probably put some better constraints on the conditions under which life might develop. So I'm not saying that there is life or that we should expect to find any, merely that this makes Enceladus an interesting place for astrobiologists.
    • Re:Yeah, sure... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by argStyopa (232550)
      ...do we need to include the outrageously small probability of life developing...

      Well that's just the POINT, isn't it?
      I mean, right now we have liquid water on one planet, where life developed. Statistical correlation of 1.0 (great!) over a sample size of 1 (not so great).

      Neither you, nor I, nor Carl Sagan, nor all the scientists at NASA knows/knew whether the 'probability of life' is large, small, or somewhere in between. What we're talking about though is DOUBLING our sample size which is a pretty big
    • Re:Yeah, sure... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by gstoddart (321705)

      The conditions for liquid water are remarkable enough, do we need to include the outrageously small probability of life developing before we've looked at the more answerable questions like "where's the heat coming from?"

      It's two-fold.

      Everyone has always acted like water in the universe was scarce and Earth had some special circumstances that allowed liquid water to exist.

      Also, damned near any conditions where we can find water on Earth, there will be sort sort of life hanging about in the form of one extrem

      • Re:Yeah, sure... (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jc42 (318812)
        Everyone has always acted like water in the universe was scarce and Earth had some special circumstances that allowed liquid water to exist.

        That belief has always puzzled me.

        Let's see now; H is the most common element in the universe, and the current estimates for other elements [jlab.org] have O in third place. So H and O atoms stand a very good chance of meeting each other nearly everywhere, to form HO. HO in turn is highly likely to bump into another H after a short trajectory. There's also a good possibility of
        • That belief has always puzzled me.

          Let's see now; H is the most common element in the universe, and the current estimates for other elements [jlab.org] have O in third place. So H and O atoms stand a very good chance of meeting each other nearly everywhere, to form HO. HO in turn is highly likely to bump into another H after a short trajectory. There's also a good possibility of that O bumping into an H2 molecule, since much of the universe's H outside stars is in the form of molecules.

          And I wouldn't ever im

      • Everyone has always acted like water in the universe was scarce and Earth had some special circumstances that allowed liquid water to exist.

        Water is pretty common in the universe, but LIQUID water is scarce.

        Earth is the only body in the solar system that can have liquid water on the surface.

    • Ex-motherfucking-actly!

      You can upgrade your karma to "Mexcellent," sir or madam!
  • Further Link (Score:5, Informative)

    by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @04:58PM (#14885560) Homepage
    The editors changed my story link. My original submission had http://www.ciclops.org/ [ciclops.org] which has not only the press-release but several supporting images which might be of interested. Granted, our server is feeling the load pretty badly at the moment, but that'll probably ease up in a little while.
  • by PIPBoy3000 (619296) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @05:18PM (#14885764)
    If you look at a temperature map [solarviews.com] of Enceladus, it's still quite cold, perhaps 100 degrees Kelvin. With virtually no pressure, it's enough to cause evaporation and the formation of water. There's a good write-up here [solarviews.com].

    So, don't expect to see exotic creatures swimming about. It might end up being a great place to mine for water, however, supporting future colonies of Saturn. The moon has virtually no gravity, so you could practically throw it off the surface (well, not really - the escape velocity is 212 m/s).
    • Bear in mind that those temperatures have low spatial resolution. We know from somewhat recent measurements with CIRES on Cassini that the "tiger stripes" are significantly warmer than the surrounding ice. We don't have a direct measurement showing *how* warm they get at the really hot parts (since even the CIRES measurements included a lot of cooler ice) until we can get a really close flyby that lets CIRES zoom way in on a stripe.

      That said, if the finding here is right, the water reachs around 270 K. W
    • From the Space.com article on the same subject:

      The moon is only the third other body in the Solar System - Earth, Jupiter's moon Io and possibly Neptune's moon Triton are the others - known to have active volcanic processes, researchers said.

      Volcanoes are hot and provide energy.

      Energy and water are two very important things life needs to survive. This puts Enceladus towards the top of the list of places where life may also exist in our solar system.
  • Threat to humans? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ecorona (953223)
    So say there are organisms that live on Saturn's moon. My fear is that they are extremely efficient at utilizing resources since they probably don't have many resources there. If we all of a sudden bring them back to earth where the resources for are that much higher then how do we know they won't spread unstopably and destroy us all?
    • Who is planning to bring them back?

      Even if we did return a sample for Saturn, planetary protection protocols are (supposed to be) pretty strict. So I wouldn't lose sleep over it, especially since any organisms on Enceladus are probably not suited for life on Earth.
    • I seriously doubt they would be a threat. If anything, they would be destroyed by life here on Earth. We've had millions of years on record of biological warfare. As such, our defenses are just as effective as our offensiveness.

      It such a microscopic organism got inside of us, it would be seen immediately as a foreign object and be snuffed out. Eventually, you will just piss out its remains if it hasn't already been converted into some form of food.
    • Sure, because you would thrive in a more energy-rich temperature, say 900 K.
  • by Expert Determination (950523) on Thursday March 09, 2006 @05:50PM (#14886088)
    Pluto is made of solid matter. The Earth is made of solid matter (it least its surface has a large solid component). There are computers on Earth. So maybe there are computers on Pluto. I vote that we allocate funds to NASA to research this hypothesis.
  • Bwahahaha! (Score:2, Funny)

    by kadathseeker (937789)
    Now I can ship myself and a ton of robots and equipment there and begin to fufill my evil plans...

    I will have the first wave of gas staions, drive-throughs, and Starbucks on the spacelanes and secure a monopoly all for myself!

    Bwahahaha! Monopoly! I feel like Bill Gates...
  • I say it's the whole Enceladus!

    BTM
  • Enchiladas is my favorite moon of Saturn.
  • See - the water on this little moon is boiling away due to "Global Warming" so this is yet ANOTHER example of the failed Eco policy of this administration!
  • ... especially when Cassini gets shot down by the Enceladians because it's interfering with their military frequencies and -- more importantly -- their satellite TV transmissions.

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