Cassini tastes jets for alien life

NASA scientists are checking for signs of alien life after a space probe finally got to taste water spurting from a distant moon. The Cassini spacecraft made a daring dive through a spectacular jet of ice and vapour erupting from one of Saturn’s major satellites, Enceladus.

Previously the robotic probe had avoided the salty geysers squirting from the moon’s south pole region. But on Monday it took a calculated risk to fly into a dense part of a plume just 60 miles (around 100 km) above the surface.

The probe survived the close encounter, spending around a minute inside the plume. Now data is being analysed to check for organic molecules – or even simple microbial life such as bacteria.

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Space scientists believe there may be a sea of liquid water where life could flourish beneath the surface of Enceladus which is 318 miles (512 km) wide.

The geysers erupt from fissures dubbed tiger stripes and have already been found to contain organic chemicals by Cassini during a more distant flyby last year.

The first pictures from the latest flight over Enceladus have not yet been processed by the Cassini team, but the raw images are spectacular enough and may be found here. Cassini has flown closer to Enceladus but never directly into a plume.

Picture: A raw but spectacular image shows jets of water and ice erupting from a crescent Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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