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Vast ocean found beneath ice of Saturn moon

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Scientists have uncovered a vast ocean beneath the icy surface of Saturn's little moon Enceladus.

Italian and American researchers made the discovery using Cassini, a NASA-European spacecraft still exploring Saturn and its rings 17 years after its launch from Cape Canaveral. Their findings were announced Thursday.

This new ocean of liquid water - as big as or even bigger than North America's Lake Superior - is centered at the south pole of Enceladus and could encompass much if not most of the moon. Enceladus (ehn-SEHL'-uh-duhs) is about 310 miles across.

The data do not show if the ocean extends to the north pole, said the lead researcher, Luciano Iess of Sapienza University of Rome. At the very least, it's a regional sea some 25 miles deep under miles-thick ice. On Earth, it would stretch from our South Pole up to New Zealand - at the very least.

Cassini's rudimentary instruments also cannot determine whether the moon's ocean harbors any form of life. Another mission using more sophisticated instruments is needed to make that search.

This latest discovery makes the interior of Enceladus "a very attractive potential place to look for life," said Cornell University planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine, who took part in the study.

Back in 2005, Cassini detected a plume streaming from cracks in the south polar region. Scientists suspected these jets of salty water vapor and ice - containing some light organic molecules like methane - might come from a subsurface ocean. On Thursday, they confirmed its presence. Their findings appear in the journal Science.

Cassini provided gravity measurements from three close fly-bys of Enceladus from 2010 to 2012. The Doppler data indicated a dense material beneath the surface of the south pole, most likely liquid water.

The ocean is believed to be sandwiched between miles of surface ice and a rocky core.

"It's extraordinary what Cassini has been able to do for this small moon," California Institute of Technology's David Stevenson, part of the research team, told reporters this week. But "this is not like mapping the surface of the Earth or mapping the surface of the moon, it's nothing like that. It's much cruder, and it's amazing that we've been able to do as much as we can."

Enceladus is hardly the only moon in the solar system with a subsurface sea.

Titan, the largest of Saturn's dozens of moons, is believed to have a global ocean. Evidence points to oceans inside the giant Jupiter moons of Callisto and Ganymede. And Jupiter's Europa also has a hidden reservoir similar to that of Enceladus, complete with plumes and a rocky bottom.

Cassini, already exceeding its life expectancy, is to make three more fly-bys of Enceladus before the mission ends in 2017.

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
Reggie April 04 2014 at 2:59 PM

What I liked looking at is the 8th picture here depciting Saturn, and it's "tiny" moon near it. Now that's a shot that's "out of this world."

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1 reply
Gary G. Reggie April 04 2014 at 3:09 PM

I agree. But they are all amazing. When I was a kid, this was just all the stuff of science fiction!

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Kevin April 04 2014 at 3:15 PM

Dear AOL: Vampires lurk. Rapists lurk. Terrorists lurk. Oceans don't lurk.

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1 reply
*Antje D & OMax* Kevin April 04 2014 at 3:38 PM

{:>> KEVIN, SIR .... }: >>> Important Points: Grammar Review might bring better results. ---

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dferr7458 April 04 2014 at 3:17 PM

dispite all the jokes and wack jobs this chit is awesome and scientifically important

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valleybusiness April 04 2014 at 3:19 PM

The movie Europa Report on Netflix discovers this very same thing, and the ending is astoundingly, and one day, very real. It's a great movie!

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jbear10024 April 04 2014 at 6:46 PM

Nice going! What a great tid bit of science news to make my day.

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badwagons April 04 2014 at 5:38 PM

now thats some cold water wonder what else is out there

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Micheles Third April 04 2014 at 2:34 PM

is there any chance that alien life would not require the same chemicals to thrive

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2 replies
juststeve35 Micheles Third April 04 2014 at 2:38 PM

Since that is not our experience here on earth, it is only logical to assume it is the same everywhere while keeping an open eye (and open mind) to non-carbon based life.

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Cristina Micheles Third April 04 2014 at 2:43 PM

According to astrophysicists, that theory could be possible and I don't see why our earthly physics have to reign supreme. Look at the water bear. It can survive freezing temperatures and boiling waters. It can survive without food and water for 10 years. That's amazing, right?

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Allen April 04 2014 at 2:33 PM

If there is liquid water there I guarentee there's life too.

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4 replies
SirLeoLa April 04 2014 at 3:24 PM

I've been feeling or thinking since the mid 1980's that at the least some oThEr moon in the solar system might have ice that could be melted/used for many things if not to drink by astronauts from Earth to move forward asfar as science research. !!"?"!!.,. OH yeah & wonder why things have moved way t0o slowly asfar as possible this,that or the other concerning natural resources !?! ;`-[} r"R"r;a;wWwrRr.,.

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Cristina April 04 2014 at 6:59 PM

Why do some people have to find petty excuses to devalue such a great discovery? Is it not great to learn more and advance? Is this a bad thing? Really? There are problems left and right, be it missing plane, hunger, disease, crime, politics- the list is long, but I don't see how this great find can be dismissed devalued so. I hope more people would encourage science and advancement and find it exciting to discover more and more. Let the thirst for knowledge be greater than the need to be blissfully ignorant.

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1 reply
crushedise Cristina April 04 2014 at 7:29 PM

Hey, maybe there's koolaid under that ice you can drink too! hahaha

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1 reply
Cristina crushedise April 04 2014 at 7:43 PM

Is the trendy and unoriginal Kool-Aid remark your best form of expressing your disagreeing opinion?

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