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NASA Spacecraft Samples a Snowing Moon

Saturn's Enceladus is spurting water vapor, organic material and salt—a microbe-friendly composition

smithsonian.com

The distinct plumes of water and other organic compounds on Saturn's moon Enceladus. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed that Enceladus, a tiny moon orbiting beyond Saturn’s rings, may be capable of hosting some of the life forms found on Earth, NASA Science News reported today.

Planetary scientists using Cassini’s spectrometers found that more than 90 jets near the moon’s south pole are spurting water vapor, organic material, salt and icy particles through fissures. Essentially, it is snowing on Enceladus, and the snow’s composition is microbe-friendly, making this moon a prime candidate for gathering samples in the search for life.

“We can fly through the plume and sample it. Or we can land on the surface, look up and stick our tongues out. And voilà…we have what we came for,” Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist and leader of the Imaging Science team for the Cassini spacecraft, said in the NASA report.

More critical reading and viewing to understand what we’ve learned about Saturn’s moons:

- An image of four distinct plums plumes at the south pole of Enceladus, from Cassini’s mission news earlier this week.

- Astrobiology.com’s explanation with an image of the “tiger stripes,” or fissures where water and ice sprays near the south pole of Enceladus.

- Scientific American‘s coverage last year of the discovery of water beneath Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.

- Smithsonian’s story on Saturn’s two types of moons: those like Enceladus are similar to moons around other giant planets, such as Jupiter; the others are tiny, icy moonlets that reside on the outer edges of Saturn’s rings. They weren’t discovered until about 8 years ago when the Cassini spacecraft began imaging the Saturn system, and they were an unexpected find.

- A study published in Nature in 2010 found that Saturn’s moons formed from the accretion of material in the planet’s rings. When ring material moves beyond a certain distance from the planet—called the Roche limit—it becomes gravitationally unstable and clumps up to form the tiny moons.

- And Smithsonian’s story that year about the mystery of Saturn’s walnut-shaped moon, Iapetus.

What else have you read that’s great about Saturn’s moons? Let us know in the comments.

About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

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