To the moon! NASA finds water, suspects life on Saturn moon

Reports about Enceladus come as NASA plans robotic mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons

NASA scientists are becoming increasingly interested in looking for signs of life on a few of the moons in our solar system.

The US space agency has announced that its Cassini spacecraft and Deep Space Network have found evidence pointing to an underground ocean on Saturn's moon Enceladus. And if there's water, that means the moon could hold life - even if in microbial form.

"Material from Enceladus' south polar jets contains salty water and organic molecules, the basic chemical ingredients for life," Linda Spilker, Cassini's project scientist at JPL, said in a statement. "Their discovery expanded our view of the 'habitable zone' within our solar system and in planetary systems of other stars. This new validation that an ocean of water underlies the jets furthers understanding about this intriguing environment."

Scientists suspected that there was water on Saturn's moon as far back as 2005, when Cassini, NASA's unmanned spacecraft sent to the Saturn system, found water vapor and ice spewing from vents near the moon's south pole.

The new information, recently sent back from Cassini and the Deep Space Network -- the global network of antennas and communication facilities that support interplanetary missions -- shows the geophysical measurements of the internal structure of Enceladus, NASA noted.

NASA said that Cassini has flown past Enceladus 19 times. Three of those flybys, from 2010 to 2012, yielded precise trajectory measurements. Those measurements support the belief that there is an ocean underneath an ice shell.

This information comes on the heels of NASA announcing that its scientists are working on a plan to send robots to explore the possibility of life on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

In December, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a huge water plume emanating from the south pole of Europa, coming up from an enormous ocean that lies beneath the ice shell that covers the moon.

Europa's ocean, which has hydro thermal vents, is about 62 miles deep and covers the entire moon. That's about 10 times deeper than the ocean on Earth and it holds twice as much water.

Jim Green, NASA's planetary science chief, said last month that there's no reason to think there isn't life on Europa.

NASA's 2015 proposed budget includes funding for a series of robotic missions to Europa that could launch in the mid 2020s.

This diagram shows what scientists suspect is an underground ocean on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The presence of water could mean theres life there. (Image: NASA)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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