FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, March 10, 2006

Water on Saturn Moon Raises Possibility of Life

The Cassini space probe currently orbiting Saturn made a surprise discovery when it photographed an erupting water geyser on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The unexpected presence of liquid water there makes the tiny moon a candidate for hosting extraterrestrial life.

Liquid water and a heat source are two key ingredients for life. Despite its distance from the Sun, Enceladus clearly has an internal heat source -- likely caused by Saturn's gravitational pull -- that warms water enough to produce the geysers.

Of course, any life on that moon would likely be in the form of extremophilic primitive organisms. But considering the frustrating lack of evidence of life in our Solar System outside of Earth, the newly discovered conditions on Enceladus have scientists excited.

The discovery is somewhat ironic and bittersweet for NASA, considering that it is facing a 50% cut in its astrobiology program -- the program that is meant to help answer the question of whether life exists on other worlds. Revelations such as Enceladus' geysers, however, may help NASA make a case for future increases in funding.

RELATED: Speaking of extremophiles, a little critter who might feel right at home on Enceladus is the tartigrade, a microscopic invertebrate also known as a "water bear" because of its peculiar resemblance to a bear. Tartigrades can survive in boiling water, freezing tempearatures close to absolute zero, near vacuums, extreme pressure and 1,000 times more radiation than a human could withstand. On Earth, they are found pretty much everywhere.

Source: AP (via Yahoo)