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There is a bizarre rocky landscape, well hidden from our prying eyes, in the secretive shadows under the oceans of our Earth. Here, in this strange and alien domain, it is always as dark as midnight. Thin, tall towers of craggy rock emit billows of black smoke from their peaks, while all around the towers stand a weird, wavy multitude of red-and-white, tube-like organisms--that have no eyes, no intestines, and no mouth. These 3-foot-long tubeworms derive their energy from Earth itself, and not from the light of our nearby Sun--a feat that most biologists did not believe possible until these wormish creatures were discovered back in 2001. The extremely hot, superheated black water, billowing out from the hydrothermal vents erupting on Earth's seafloor, provides high-energy chemicals that sustain the tubeworms, as well as other weird organisms that apparently thrive in this very improbable habitat.



"Cassini's seven-plus years... have shown us how beautifully dynamic and unexpected the Saturn system is," commented project scientist Dr. Linda Spilker of NASA's JPL to Time Magazine's online edition on March 23, 2012.



Dr. Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist and leader of the Imaging Science team for Cassini, explained to the press in March 2012 that "More than 90 jets of all sizes near Enceladus's south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds all over the place. Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth's oceans."

Ganymede, and four other moons dwelling in our Sun's family, possess liquid water beneath their frigid crusts of ice. The others are Saturn's moons, Titan and Enceladus, and two other Galilean moons of Jupiter--Europa and Callisto. Planetary scientists think the oceans of Europa and Enceladus are in contact with rock--thus making these two moons high-priority targets for future astrobiology missions.



Comets are really traveling relic icy planetesimals, the remnants of what was once a vast population of ancient objects that contributed to the construction of the quartet of giant, gaseous planets of the outer Solar System: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Alternatively, the asteroids--that primarily inhabit the region between Mars and Jupiter termed the Main Asteroid Belt--are the leftover rocky and metallic planetesimals that bumped into one another and then merged together to form the four rocky and metallic inner planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Planetesimals of both the rocky and icy kind blasted into one another in the cosmic "shooting gallery" that was our young Solar System. These colliding objects also merged together to create ever larger and larger bodies--from pebble size, to boulder size, to mountain size--and, finally, to planet size.



NASA's future exploration of ocean worlds is enhanced by HST's monitoring of Europa's possible plume activity and Cassini's long-term observations of the plume of Enceladus. In particular, the investigations of both ocean worlds are providing the groundwork for NASA's Europa Clipper mission, which is planned for launch in the 2020s.

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