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"We have the smoking gun" that proves the existence of water, said Carolyn Porco, a Cassini imaging scientist from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Torrence Johnson, a Cassini scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, said this marks the first time that scientists have seen evidence of water in liquid form so close to the surface on another body beyond Earth.
If Enceladus does harbor life, it probably consists of microbes or other primitive organisms capable of living in extreme conditions, scientists say.
The findings were published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
David Morrison, a senior scientist at NASA's Astrobiology Institute, cautioned against rushing to judgment about whether the tiny moon could support life. "It's certainly interesting, but I don't see how much more you can say beyond that," Morrison said.
Scientists believe Mars and Jupiter's icy moons might have - or once had - conditions hospitable to life. But the evidence of water is indirect. In the case of Mars, scientists have never seen any flowing water. But based on their study of rocks, they believe water once existed there. They say magnetic readings of Jupiter's moon Europa strongly suggest that it has an ocean of water, covered by ice.