''We see on Enceladus the three basic requirements for the origin of life, we see water, although it may not be liquid. We see organic compounds ... and we also have a source of heat, '' Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado said. The spacecraft found a high density of water vapour and both simple and complex organic chemicals as it passed within 50 km of Enceladus on March 12. ''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.
''The composition of the plume is very much like the composition of a comet,'' Waite noted. Comets can contain primordial materials, so many scientists think the objects might have seeded life on Earth. The presence of similar materials on Enceladus therefore raises questions about the possibilities for life within the Saturnian system, he said.
Before the flyby, scientists had used ultraviolet imaging on board Cassini to study the structure and composition of the plume and decide whether it would be safe for the craft to fly through.
Previous studies had revealed that plumes are shooting out of the moon at about 650 to 1,100 miles an hour, originating from fractures at the south pole known as tiger stripes.