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A spacecraft is to be sent through a fountain of icy spray that is coming out of an alien ocean that could have life within it.
The Cassini craft is to fly past Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And scientists hope that it can come to understand the makeup of the mysterious watery world, which some scientists think could have life beneath its surface.
Scientists have already confirmed that there is an ocean covering its entire globe, underneath its icy shell.
One of Cassini's chief missions is to find evidence of hydrothermal activity on Enceladus.
Dr Hunter Waite, from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas - who is team leader for the craft's neutral mass spectrometer instrument (INMS), said: "Confirmation of molecular hydrogen in the plume would be an independent line of evidence that hydrothermal activity is taking place in the Enceladus ocean, on the seafloor.
The basic building blocks of life may have been present on Earth from the very beginning.
Astronomers detected 21 different complex organic molecules streaming from Comet Lovejoy during its highly anticipated close approach to the sun this past January. Many of these same carbon-containing compounds have also been spotted around newly forming sunlike stars, researchers said.
"This suggests that our proto-planetary nebula was already enriched in complex organic molecules (as disk models suggested) when comets and planets formed," study lead author Nicolas Biver, of the Paris Observatory, told Space.com via email
thermophiles: survive at temperatures between 120° and 160° Fahrenheit
hyperthermophiles: survive at temperatures between 175° and 235° Fahrenheit
psychrophiles: survive at temperatures between 25° and 39° Fahrenheit
acidophiles: survive under high acidity conditions
alkalophiles: survive under extreme alkaline conditions
halophiles: survive in environments containing 20–30 percent salt
barophiles: survive at pressures 300–700 times sea level air pressure
radiotolerants: can survive a high radioactive environment
xerophiles: can survive in extremely dry environments
metalotolerants: can survive high levels of dissolved heavy metals
"It just about ticks every box you have when it comes to looking for life on another world," says Nasa astrobiologist Chris McKay. "It has got liquid water, organic material and a source of heat. It is hard to think of anything more enticing short of receiving a radio signal from aliens on Enceladus telling us to come and get them."
Cassini's observations suggest Enceladus possesses a subterranean ocean that is kept liquid by the moon's internal heat. "We are not sure where that energy is coming from," McKay admits. "The source is producing around 16 gigawatts of power and looks very like the geothermal energy sources we have on Earth – like the deep vents we see in our ocean beds and which bubble up hot gases."
“Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth’s oceans.
“In the end, it’s the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search,” said Porco.
Bolting by Enceladus at 19,000 mph, the plutonium-powered Cassini space probe was expected to only pass through the icy plumes for a few tens of seconds, scientists said, but the orbiter was programmed to execute a tightly-choreographed observation sequence to measure the chemical constituents of the eruption cloud and capture a series of images.
Pictures from the flyby are expected in 24 to 48 hours, NASA said late Wednesday.
— Scientists also expect to better understand the chemistry of the plume as a result of the flyby. The low altitude of the encounter is, in part, intended to afford Cassini greater sensitivity to heavier more massive molecules, including organics, than the spacecraft has observed during previous higher-altitude passes through the plume.
— The flyby will help solve the mystery of whether the plume is composed of column-like individual jets or sinuous icy curtain eruptions or a combination of both. The answer would make clearer how material is getting to the surface from the ocean below.
— Researchers are not sure how much icy material the plumes are actually spraying into space. The amount of activity has major implications for how long Enceladus might have been active.