NASA scientists have found a reason for excitement in an unexpected place - on a tiny moon orbiting the planet Saturn. Scientists believe the moon may have water, one of the essential elements for life.
Before NASA's Cassini spacecraft circled the tiny moon of Enceladus, the body was considered to be a frozen, rocky wasteland. But scientists now say the moon has elements of an environment that could harbor life.
NASA officials say the probe discovered what could be geysers spouting what appears to be ice crystals and water vapor.
Cassini Imaging Team Leader Carolyn Porco says the find could indicate pockets of liquid water under the surface of Enceladus, and, potentially, life.
"It appears we have all the ingredients that all the experts have claimed for a long time now, you would need to have environments suitable for living organisms," she said. "And so, that's what we think we have here. We have found another environment in our solar system, in a very surprising place, that could host living organisms. Now, of course, we'll never know until we go there, but it's a very, very, very exciting possibility."
The discovery of the geyser makes the moon one of three places in our solar system, other than on Earth, where similar activity has been found. Cassini Imaging Team Member Torrence Johnson says finding what scientists widely consider to be two of the building blocks of life - liquid water and a source of heat - is making NASA widen its search for bodies hospitable to life.
"If we're finding more of these types of places and the necessary energy sources to have liquid water in these, what we had previously regarded as inhospitable environments, it could well be that icy moons around other stars, around planets of other stars, might be the most common places where you would have the right ingredients for life, which is sort of a turnaround from some of the previous thinking," he said.
Launched in 1997, Cassini entered Saturn's orbit in mid-2004, beginning a four-year mission that includes more than 70 orbits around the ringed planet and its moons. The mission is expected to revisit Enceladus in early 2008.