[This story is based on an Associated Press report dated April 8 and a Reuters newswire report dated April 9, 1998.]
LONDON -- Orbiting high above Earth, the European Space Agency's infrared space observatory (ISO) has discovered water around distant stars and planets, raising expectations of life elsewhere in the universe, according to an announcement on April 7.
The discovery of water vapor in the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has generated the most excitement, because that moon may duplicate the conditions that led to the creation of life on Earth, said Roger Bonnet, the agency's director of science.
"Now that water has been discovered [on Titan]... this lends more support to the possibility that we have all the conditions which prevailed on Earth 4.5 billion years ago to give birth to life," he said. "These conditions may also exist on Titan, and the only thing you need is a little heat, and maybe [the] birth of life may be seen."
Over the last two and a half years, the ISO has been able to see evidence of water throughout the universe, said Reinhard Genzel, chairman of the agency's Astronomy Working Group.
"In fact, it has been a spectacular vista to see water everywhere," he said.
The observatory found water around dying stars, newborn stars, in intersteller space, in other galaxies, and in the atmospheres around Mars and all the outer planets, in particular the Titan moon, Genzel said.
Athena Coustenis of the Paris Observatory said scientists knew Titan's atmosphere contained carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, so they expected water vapor as well. Now that it's been detected, she said, scientists hope to study the mysterious moon's organic chemistry.
NASA's spacecraft Cassini, which was launched last October, promises the best look yet at Saturn and its moons. When the plutonium-powered spacecraft arrives at Saturn in 2004 after a 2.2 billion-mile journey, it will release the Huygens probe, built by the European Space Agency, which will descend by parachute for some two and a half hours through the dense atmosphere of Titan, sending back data all the way. With luck, Huygens will land softly enough on Titan's surface to continue sending back more data.
"After ISO, the Huygens probe will reveal the actual degree of complexity in a mixture of elaborate organic molecules closely resembling the chemical soup of the young Earth," Coustenis said.
Meanwhile, Genzel said, the ISO has also unexpectedly discovered "remarkably high concentrations" of water around young stars in the Orion constellation.
"These young stars send out shock waves -- vast streams of gas which run into the surrounding material out of which they were born. And then these streams of gas, these shocks, smash their molecules around and water is formed," Genzel said.
"That may be a way to then convert material into water, which then again may play an important role in the life cycle of forming planets, and maybe life," he said.
Physicist David Neufeld, in a separate report on April 9, characterized a region in the "sword" of Orion as a veritable "water factory" that churns out enough water molecules to fill Earth's oceans 60 times each day.
This distant water vapor "factory" may offer clues about where all the water in our own solar system came from, Neufeld said.
In Orion's starry sword, one apparently pink star is in fact composed of many bright stars embedded in a gaseous cloud, said Martin Harwit, a Cornell University astrophysicist.
Harwit and his colleagues looked at the Orion cloud with the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory.
"[Our] sun presumably formed out of a similar cloud 5 billion years ago.... This is a process that is going on everywhere and which went on in the nebula from which the sun was born," according to Neufeld.
Future research could focus on confirming that the water vapor generated in the gassy cloud survives the star birth process and is passed as water, ice, or water vapor onto comets and into the oceans of planets.
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