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Saturn?s moon has water. Life?

THE ORBITING Cassini spacecraft has spotted what appear to be water geysers on one of Saturn's icy moons, raising the tantalising possibility that the celestial object harbours life.

india Updated: Mar 11, 2006 12:25 IST
Agencies

THE ORBITING Cassini spacecraft has spotted what appear to be water geysers on one of Saturn's icy moons, raising the tantalising possibility that the celestial object harbours life.

The surprising images from the moon Enceladus represent some of the most direct and dramatic evidence yet of liquid water beyond the Earth. Previous claims have been mostly circumstantial, based on scientists' analysis of rocks and other indirect data.

Excited by the discovery, some scientists said Enceladus should be added to the short list of places within the solar system most likely to have extraterrestrial life.

Cassini recently snapped high-resolution images showing geyser-like eruptions of ice particles and water vapour at Enceladus's south pole. The pictures do not actually show any liquid water, but scientists surmise that the ice and vapour are coming from underground reservoirs of liquid water near the surface.

"We have the smoking gun" that proves the existence of water, said Carolyn Porco, a Cassini imaging scientist from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "We realise that this is a radical conclusion -- that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold."

"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.”

Torrence Johnson, a Cassini scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasdena, California, said this marks the first time that scientists have seen evidence of liquid water so close to the surface on another body beyond Earth.

If Enceladus does harbour life, it probably consists of microbes or other primitive organisms capable of living in extreme conditions, scientists say.

Saturn has at least 47 known moons.