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TED2009

Carolyn Porco: Could a Saturn moon harbor life?

February 6, 2009

Carolyn Porco shares exciting new findings from the Cassini spacecraft's recent sweep of one of Saturn's moons, Enceladus. Samples gathered from the moon's icy geysers hint that an ocean under its surface could harbor life.

Carolyn Porco - Planetary scientist
As the leader of the Imaging Team on the Cassini mission to Saturn, Carolyn Porco interprets and shares the pictures coming back from this fascinating planet, its rings and its moons. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Two years ago here at TED
00:18
I reported that we had discovered
00:20
at Saturn, with the Cassini Spacecraft,
00:22
an anomalously warm and geologically active region
00:25
at the southern tip of the small Saturnine moon
00:28
Enceladus, seen here.
00:31
This region seen here for the first time
00:33
in the Cassini image taken in 2005. This is the south polar region,
00:35
with the famous tiger-stripe fractures crossing the south pole.
00:40
And seen just recently in late 2008,
00:43
here is that region again,
00:47
now half in darkness because the southern hemisphere
00:49
is experiencing the onset of August
00:52
and eventually winter.
00:55
And I also reported that we'd made this mind-blowing discovery --
00:57
this once-in-a-lifetime discovery
01:00
of towering jets
01:02
erupting from those fractures at the south pole,
01:04
consisting of tiny water ice crystals
01:07
accompanied by water vapor
01:09
and simple organic compounds like carbon dioxide and methane.
01:12
And at that time two years ago
01:16
I mentioned that we were speculating
01:18
that these jets might in fact be geysers,
01:20
and erupting from pockets
01:22
or chambers of liquid water underneath the surface,
01:24
but we weren't really sure.
01:26
However, the implications of those results --
01:28
of a possible environment within this moon
01:31
that could support prebiotic chemistry,
01:34
and perhaps life itself --
01:36
were so exciting that, in the intervening two years,
01:39
we have focused more on Enceladus.
01:41
We've flown the Cassini Spacecraft
01:43
by this moon now several times,
01:46
flying closer and deeper into these jets,
01:48
into the denser regions of these jets,
01:51
so that now we have come away with some
01:53
very precise compositional measurements.
01:55
And we have found
01:57
that the organic compounds coming from this moon
01:59
are in fact more complex than we previously reported.
02:02
While they're not amino acids,
02:05
we're now finding things like
02:07
propane and benzene,
02:09
hydrogen cyanide, and formaldehyde.
02:11
And the tiny water crystals here
02:13
now look for all the world
02:16
like they are frozen droplets of salty water,
02:18
which is a discovery that suggests
02:21
that not only do the jets come from
02:23
pockets of liquid water,
02:25
but that that liquid water is in contact with rock.
02:27
And that is a circumstance
02:30
that could supply the chemical energy
02:32
and the chemical compounds needed to sustain life.
02:34
So we are very encouraged by these results.
02:37
And we are much more confident now than we were two years ago
02:40
that we might indeed
02:43
have on this moon, under the south pole,
02:45
an environment or a zone that is hospitable to living organisms.
02:48
Whether or not there are living organisms there, of course,
02:52
is an entirely different matter.
02:55
And that will have to await the arrival,
02:57
back at Enceladus,
02:59
of the spacecrafts, hopefully some time in the near future,
03:02
specifically equipped to address that particular question.
03:05
But in the meantime I invite you to imagine the day
03:09
when we might journey to the Saturnine system,
03:12
and visit the Enceladus interplanetary geyser park,
03:15
just because we can.
03:19
Thank you.
03:21
(Applause)
03:23

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Carolyn Porco - Planetary scientist
As the leader of the Imaging Team on the Cassini mission to Saturn, Carolyn Porco interprets and shares the pictures coming back from this fascinating planet, its rings and its moons.

Why you should listen

Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco studies and interprets the photos from NASA space missions like the renowned Voyager mission to the outer solar system in the 1980s and the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. She leads a team of scientists from the US and Europe that has been analyzing the images Cassini has sent back since it left Earth in 1997. At Saturn, they have found new phenomena everywhere they've turned their cameras … in the planet’s atmosphere, within its rings and on the surfaces of its many moons. And they've produced spectacular images and animations of these marvels in the process.

Back in the early-1980s, while still working on her doctorate, Porco was drafted onto the Voyager imaging team to assist in crunching the mountains of data coming back from Voyager’s fly-by of Saturn. Her work on the planet's rings and their relation to its moons cemented her connection with Saturn. After Voyager had flown by Neptune and was nearing conclusion, she worked together with Carl Sagan in planning Voyager’s celebrated Pale Blue Dot picture of Earth.

Her ongoing work at the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPs) has two goals: to process, interpret and archive Cassini’s images for other scientists, and to make sure the images -- in all their breathtaking poetry and mystery and sheer Save-Image-As-Desktop awesomeness -- connect with the general public. She is an advocate for the exploration and understanding of planetary space, and her frequent talks (as well as her "Captain's Log" memos on the CICLOPS website) speak to everyone, scientist and nonscientist alike. Her advocacy extends to Hollywood, where she was the character consultant on the 1997 movie “Contact,” and a consultant on the 2009 Paramount Pictures re-boot of “Star Trek.” In 2012, she was named one the 25 most influential people in space by TIME magazine.

Finally, in a twist on the Pale Blue Dot theme, it was she who conceived the idea to invite the people of the world to smile while Cassini imaged the Earth on July 19, 2013 in an event called “The Day the Earth Smiled.”

For more information: 

Solar System Portrait: Earth as 'Pale Blue Dot'

BBC: Saturn snapped as Earth smiled

The Atlantic: The Carl Sagan of Our Time Reprises the 'Pale Blue Dot' Photo of Earth

The Day the Earth Smiled: Image

Library of Congress: Portraits of the Solar System: Talking with Carolyn Porco About Carl Sagan  

The original video is available on TED.com
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