Sponge world has ingredients for life

Space scientists have discovered the vital ingredients for life on a peculiar moon that is shaped like a bath sponge.

Cassini image of HyperionWater and chemicals called hydrocarbons were spotted in craters on Hyperion, a rocky satellite of the ringed planet Saturn.

Photos from Nasa’s Cassini spaceprobe show that Hyperion is possibly the strangest world in the solar system. Just 220 miles across, and made of ice and rock, it looks like a cosmic loofah.

Cassini peered into the cup-like craters to detect the basic building blocks for life.

Planetary scientist Dale Cruikshank, of Nasa’s Ames centre in California, said: “Of special interest is the presence on Hyperion of hydrocarbons – combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms that are found in comets, meteorites, and the dust in our galaxy.

“These molecules, when embedded in ice and exposed to ultraviolet light, form new molecules of biological significance.”

Cruikshank added: “This doesn’t mean that we have found life, but it is a further indication that the basic chemistry needed for life is widespread in the universe.”

Cassini’s instruments mapped Hyperion’s mineral and chemical features, confirming the presence of frozen water and finding it mixed with solid carbon dioxide, or dry ice.

Cassini made the observations, reported this week in the journal Nature, in 2005. It has also been sending back amazing images of Saturn itself such as this psychedelic shot which we covered last month and a stunning view down on the planet and its rings.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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