A spacecraft has tasted oxygen in the atmosphere of another world for the first time, while flying low over Saturn’s icy moon, Rhea.

Nasa’s Cassini probe scooped oxygen from the thin atmosphere of the planet’s moon while passing overhead at an altitude of 97km in March this year. Until now, wisps of oxygen have only been detected on planets and their moons indirectly, using the Hubble space telescope and other major facilities.

Instruments aboard Cassini revealed an extremely thin oxygen and carbon dioxide atmosphere that is sustained by high-energy particles slamming into the moon’s surface and kicking up atoms, molecules and ions.

Astronomers have counted 62 moons orbiting Saturn. At 1,500km wide, Rhea is the second largest and is thought to be made almost entirely of ice.

“This really is the first time that we’ve seen oxygen directly in the atmosphere of another world,” said Andrew Coates, at University College London’s Mullard space science laboratory, a co-author of the study, published in the journal Science.

“Such chemistry could be a prerequisite for life. All evidence from Cassini indicates that Rhea is too cold and devoid of the liquid water necessary for life as we know it,” said team leader Ben Teolis, of Southwest Research Institute, Texas.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010

More In: Science | Sci-Tech