Ingredients for Life Discovered on Strange Moon Near Saturn

WASHINGTON -- The basic ingredients for life -- warmth, water and organic chemicals -- are in place on Saturn's small moon Enceladus, scientists said, detailing the content of huge plumes erupting off its surface.

The scientists described observations made by the Cassini spacecraft when it flew over the surface of Enceladus (pronounced en-SELL-ah-dus) on March 12 as part of an ongoing exploration of Saturn and its moons.

Scientists working on the U.S.-European mission did not say they had detected any actual evidence of life on this moon, where geysers at its south pole continuously shoot watery plumes 800 kilometers off its icy surface into space.

But they said the building blocks for life were there, and described the plumes as a surprising organic brew, sort of like carbonated water with an essence of natural gas.

"Water vapor was the major constituent. There was methane present. There was carbon dioxide. There was carbon monoxide. There were simple organics and there were more complex organics," Hunter Waite of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, told reporters Wednesday.

Organic molecules contain carbon-hydrogen bonds and can be found in living things.

Waite said the material bursting out of the geysers was very much like a comet's chemistry. Comets are celestial bodies orbiting the sun made of rock, dust and ice with characteristic tails of gas and dust streams.

"The question that one would ask is: Where did the organics come from?" Waite said.

"Of course, natural gas comes from decaying biological matter on Earth. But this is not the conclusion we reached for Enceladus. Another possibility is the geochemistry going on in the interior can also produce organics," Waite said.

Scientists are eager to learn whether conditions exist in our solar system, other than Earth, to support life.