The Seas of Enceladus

Mar 9, 2006 6:59pm

There’s a wonderful romance to this: 900 million miles away, in the cold wastes near Saturn, scientists have spotted…a geyser.  A jet of liquid water, coming from a hidden sea on Saturn’s little moon Enceladus.

It is–please pardon the pun–a really cool story.  The scientists who run NASA’s Cassini probe report today, in the journal SCIENCE, that Enceladus appears to have reservoirs of water, covered by an icy crust, probably warmed by volcanic activity in the moon’s interior.  What’s more, they believe that Enceladus has organic molecules, perhaps delivered there by comets crashing into it over the eons.

SCIENCE routinely lets reporters know on Monday what will be in its Thursday edition, but imposes an embargo; we can have copies of the scientists’ papers in their entirety, but in exchange, we can’t put the story out until 2pm, Eastern Time.  Their idea is that reporters will then have the time to do well-thought-out stories, relieved of the rush to air or print.  It doesn’t always work.

A TV station in Orlando posted this on its website around noon:

"Big NASA Announcement Today

"NASA is planning to make a huge announcement today, about possible life in our own solar system.

"Exact details of what we can expect to hear have not been released. We do know that evidence has been found that could point to life relatively close to the earth.

"Official word is expected this afternoon at 2 p.m. We’ll have complete coverage of today’s big news when it is released…."

…and all of a sudden we’re in a panic, with calls and emails coming from all our different programs.  Never mind that the phenomenon announced today is not new.

In 1997 NASA reported a briny sea beneath miles of ice on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.  The Saturn finding is still important, but partly because it reaffirms the Jupiter results, and partly because the water is close enough to the top of the ice that it’s venting between cracks.

NASA itself, usually very media-savvy, was caught by surprise.  It had put together the key images of Enceladus with some animation of Cassini (they do this very well), but the lead scientist was back at her office in Colorado, and no news conference was planned.  Pretty soon their phones were melting. 

(You can see their version of the story HERE.)

I’m glad we did the story, and people around here were stopping me to say, "That’s really, really interesting."  But on some days we just demonstrate the power of chaos theory.

–Ned

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