Saturn moon could be hospitable to life

 @ibtimes on February 24 2010 12:08 PM

New detailed images of Saturn's icy moon released this week provide the latest evidence that the surface may be hospitable to life.

NASA said on Tuesday that a flyby of planet's Enceladus moon showed small jets of water spewing from the southern hemisphere, while infrared mapping of the surface revealed temperatures warmer than previously expected.

The huge amount of heat pouring out of the tiger stripe fractures may be enough to melt the ice underground, said John Spencer, a composite infrared spectrometer team member based at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

Results like this make Enceladus one of the most exciting places we've found in the solar system.

In the measurements, peak temperatures along Baghdad Sulcus exceed 180 Kelvin (minus 135 degrees Fahrenheit), and may be higher than 200 Kelvin (minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit).

The fractures are chilly by Earth standards, but they're a cozy oasis compared to the numbing 50 Kelvin (-370 Fahrenheit) of their surroundings, Spencer explained.

Although the temperature estimate is not yet definitive, the hotter the surface temperature makes for a hotter interior, strengthening the chances of pools of liquid water inside the moon. That would also increase the likelihood life could be present in the interior as well.

And if true, this makes Enceladus' organic-rich, liquid sub-surface environment the most accessible extraterrestrial watery zone known in the solar system, said Carolyn Porco another NASA specialist.

The Nov. 21 flyby was the eighth targeted encounter with Enceladus. It took the spacecraft to within about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) of the moon's surface.

 NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency are cooperating on the project.

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