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"Cassini's seven-plus years ... have shown us how beautifully dynamic and unexpected the Saturn system is," says project scientist Linda Spilker at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The idea that that system might also be a living one has just become a little more plausible.
"There are two types of particles coming from Enceladus, one pure water-ice, the other water-ice mixed with other stuff," said Sascha Kempf, deputy principal investigator for Cassini's Cosmic Dust Analyzer at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. "We think the clean water-ice particles are being bounced off the surface and the dirty water-ice particles are coming from inside the moon.
Several gases, including water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, perhaps a little ammonia and either carbon monoxide or nitrogen gas make up the gaseous envelope of the plume.
The source of the geysers is of great interest to scientists who think liquid water, perhaps even an ocean, may exist in the area. While flying through the edge of the plumes, Cassini will be approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the surface. At closest approach to Enceladus, Cassini will be only 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the moon.
During March of 2010 [and previously in 2008], the Cassini spacecraft tasted and sampled a surprising organic brew erupting in geyser-like fashion not from Yellowstone National Park, but from Saturn's moon Enceladus during a close flyby.
"A completely unexpected surprise is that the chemistry of Enceladus, what's coming out from inside, resembles that of a comet," said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "To have primordial material coming out from inside a Saturn moon raises many questions on the formation of the Saturn system."
The Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer saw a much higher density of volatile gases, water vapour, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as organic materials, some twenty times denser than expected. This dramatic increase in density was evident as the spacecraft flew over the area of the plumes.
The first step toward answering the question of whether life exists inside the subsurface aquifer of Enceladus is to analyze the organic compounds in the plume.