Some truly amazing discoveries were made by our robots in the outer solar system this week.
"Enceladus [en-SELL-ah-dus] is one of the brightest objects in our solar system. Covered in water ice that reflects sunlight like freshly fallen snow, Enceladus reflects almost 100 percent of the sunlight that strikes it. Because Enceladus reflects so much sunlight, the surface temperature is extremely cold, about -201° C (-330° F)."
"NASA's Cassini spacecraft may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The rare occurrence of liquid water so near the surface raises many new questions about the mysterious moon."
"We realize that this is a radical conclusion -- that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold," said Dr. Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. "However, if we are right, we have significantly broadened the diversity of solar system environments where we might possibly have conditions suitable for living organisms. High-resolution Cassini images show icy jets and towering plumes ejecting large quantities of particles at high speed."
"Scientists examined several models to explain the process. They ruled out the idea that the particles are produced by or blown off the moon's surface by vapor created when warm water ice converts to a gas. Instead, scientists have found evidence for a much more exciting possibility -- the jets might be erupting from near-surface pockets of liquid water above 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), like cold versions of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone."
"PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Cassini spacecraft tasted and sampled a surprising organic brew erupting in geyser-like fashion from Saturn's moon Enceladus during a close flyby on March 12. Scientists are amazed that this tiny moon is so active, "hot" and brimming with water vapor and organic chemicals.
New heat maps of the surface show higher temperatures than previously known in the south polar region, with hot tracks running the length of giant fissures. Additionally, scientists say the organics "taste and smell" like some of those found in a comet. The jets themselves harmlessly peppered Cassini, exerting measurable torque on the spacecraft, and providing an indirect measure of the plume density.
It’s been supposed for some time that Enceladus, like Jupiter’s moon Europa, has a subsurface ocean. The surface itself is mostly water ice, implying strongly that any ocean would have water as well. The plumes erupt out from cracks in the surface, and when Cassini dove through them it got to directly sample the interior of Enceladus. And it tasted organic compounds, 20 times as dense as previously thought."
"We very clearly saw water; there's water everywhere on Enceladus, it's 99.9% water ice in general at the surface, and we've known that for years, so it wasn't a big surprise," he told the BBC News website.
"But when we started looking at our spectra we saw absorption bands from a compound that had to have carbon and hydrogen bonded together.
Enceladus in a very real sense becomes a stronger candidate for life than [Jupiter's moon] Europa
Bob Brown, University of Arizona, Tucson
"And when we mapped the location, it was right in these 'tiger stripes' - right where the jets are coming out, and right where it's hot - and it's pretty hard to imagine it's getting there from anywhere but inside."
The organic molecules appear to be quite simple, he said, probably largely methane.
The jets also contain nitrogen; and putting all this together means, said Dr Brown, that Enceladus contains all the ingredients necessary for the development of life, or of precursors to it.
"What you need to put microbes together of the kind that we're familiar with is carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, and water to act as an intermediary for metabolism," he said.
"You've got a rock core that's hot as hell; you've got all the conditions that we think gave rise to the first self-replicating molecules and eventually to life on this planet.
"So Enceladus in a very real sense becomes a stronger candidate for life than [Jupiter's moon] Europa, for instance."
The organic compounds sampled by Casinni could suggest possible methanogens.
The ever expanding, extreme locales that nurture thriving ecosystems on our own planet give increasing credibility to possible life in our own solar system.
If life is so potentially ubiquitous in our own, tiny little solar system, how many other possible habitats for life and nursery's for intelligence must exist in the unimaginably vast expanse of the universe?
I get much more awe and mystery from actual facts about the universe around us than I could ever get from the small minded, narrow, supernatural view of the faith-based world.