Saturn's moon, Enceladus, contains water - which planetary scientists have long suspected lurked beneath its icy veneer and above its rocky core - and it has been confirmed scientists announced on Thursday.
Planetary scientists suspected water existed since 2005, when photographs showing geysers of ice crystals shooting out of its south pole were captured.
The findings, published in the journal Science, were confirmed by new data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which showed Enceladus harbors a sea of water the size of Lake Superior.
“What we’ve done is put forth a strong case for an ocean,” said David J. Stevenson, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and an author of the paper.
The water ocean on Enceladus is about 6 miles (10 kilometers) deep and lies beneath a shell of ice 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 km) thick, researchers said. Further, it's in direct contact with a rocky seafloor, theoretically making possible all kinds of complex chemical reactions — such as, perhaps, the kind that led to the rise of life on Earth.
This small moon, just over 300 miles wide, is now the most promising place for astronomers to look for life in the solar system - surpassing Mars.
“Definitely Enceladus,” said Larry W. Esposito, when referring to life in our solar system - and a professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado. “Because there’s warm water right there now.”
It only takes three ingredients for life: water, heat and carbon-based molecules, and Enceladus could very well possess all three. As Cassini flew through the plumes of vapor and ice crystals rising into space from the eruptions, it also detected simple carbon-based molecules like methane and carbon dioxide, which suggest more complicated carbon molecules may lie on its surface.
"It's startling," said Carolyn C. Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., leader of the imaging team for Cassini.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see the planetary community clamoring for a future exploratory expedition to land on the south polar terrain of Enceladus," said Dr. Porco, lead author of one of the papers. "We have found an environment that is potentially suitable for living organisms."
Image via NASA