July 5, 2007—Despite its bathtub-ready appearance, Hyperion—Saturn's largest irregularly shaped moon—is anything but spongy.
High-resolution images taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft—including the picture above taken in 2005—suggest the satellite's cuplike craters are reservoirs for hydrocarbons. The finding could mean that the ingredients needed for life as we know it may be more common in our solar system than previously thought, according to NASA.
Dark material spotted at the bottoms of some of the moon's craters has the same chemical signature as hydrocarbons, NASA scientists said. These organic molecules—made of hydrogen and carbon—are also found in comets, meteorites, and galactic dust.
"These molecules, when embedded in ice and exposed to ultraviolet light, form new molecules of biological significance," planetary scientist Dale Cruikshank said in a statement. Cruikshank is lead author of a new Hyperion study in today's issue of the journal Nature.
"This doesn't mean that we have found life, but it is a further indication that the basic chemistry needed for life is widespread in the universe."
Another material, solid carbon dioxide, is also present on Hyperion, but in a strange form: attached, or complexed, to water ice.
"I'm convinced that this complexing of carbon dioxide and water ice may be a key to understanding Hyperion's spongy and porous nature," Cruikshank told National Geographic News.
The carbon dioxide will probably evaporate from Saturn's moons over long periods of time, he explained. But the attachment to water ice and other surface materials makes the material much more stable.
—Cori Sue Morris