That figures recently interviewed Carolyn Porco, director of NASA’s Cassini project, which has returned such fascinating results from Saturn’s rings and moons. The interview got interesting when asked Dr. Porco which moon she would bet on for extraterrestrial life. So if you had a lineup of Enceladus, Titan and Europa, which are always brought up as good targets for astrobiology, which would you choose?

Porco: Oh, Enceladus wins hands down.

She spoke of Titan’s lack of surface water and its hydrocarbon lakes, where no organisms that we are currently aware of could survive. She mentioned Europa’s buried ocean, which is at least several kilometers beneath the surface and completely out of our reach, because the intense radiation field Europa soaks in “would fry a properly equipped spacecraft in several months,” making drilling a tad difficult.

But Enceladus has subsurface water, probably a sea, which is currently jetting out into space. The water is salty, relatively warm, and contains organic matter. We have organisms right here on Earth that thrive in just such an environment, without the influence of sunlight. Enceladus, said Dr. Porco, “has become the go-to place in our solar system for issues bearing on extraterrestrial life.” She added, “The beauty of Enceladus is all you have to do is land on the surface, look up and stick your tongue out. It could be snowing microbes at the south pole. We would be foolish not to head back there immediately.”

Which brings me to my favorite part of the interview: What are the actual plans for going back?

Porco: This issue was examined recently, and NASA chose Europa. There’s a lot of political momentum behind a Europa mission.

Let me get this straight. According to the scientist best positioned to know the facts, Enceladus is hands-down the top candidate for extraterrestrial life. Not only that, but the areas in which we might find that life are easily accessible on this moon, while they’re inaccessible on other moons. A study of Enceladus would be a less expensive project with a higher likelihood of success. But science requires money, and money means politics, and the politics mean that NASA…has chosen Europa instead.

That figures.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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11 Responses to That figures

  1. M. says:

    Why do politicians want to go to Europa? Because of the name? So maybe Enceladus should be changed into Americanos? 😉

    • oregon expat says:

      My theory is that the politicians’ entire understanding of astronomy and exobiology come from reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two when they were kids. Clarke said there was life on Europa, so that’s where the politicians want to go.

      That’s ever so much easier than actually reading a scientific report, or listening to the testimony of some boring researcher whose career is built around knowing these things. Politicians have more important things to do with their time!

      • M. says:

        And now I think this is kind of cool. You know, now I think about the future politicians, who have read your stories. 😉

  2. Inge says:

    hahahaha.. so typical of them. Scientists say a, which always means politicians say z. It’s hard-wired or so i believe.. lol

  3. scout says:

    Politician’s can’t seem to make good decisions in their own field (debt-ceiling mess anyone…). How on earth could they possibly make a good decision on something outside of their field. Easy–listen to the experts. Listening? No no no… Don’t you know, politician have their ear drums surgically removed when they are elected.

  4. scout says:

    I don’t think they ever had those to begin with :p

  5. Malkor says:

    Instead of launching into a rant about politicians I will say something about the Europa or Enceladus question.

    And as much as I hate to say that, it possibly is the right decision.

    I did not look into any mission plans or the likes, but a few things come to mind when I look at those two celestial objects and sending a probe there:

    Europa is way closer than Enceladus, which means a shorter travel time for the probe in hibernation mode, less communications delay.Also a cheaper rocket and less swing-by manouvers, since the probe does not need to reach escape velocity to overcome Jupiter’s enormous pull.

    Also the planets might be in a constellation which would make a probe take a lifetime to get there. And since I read somewhere that there seems to be some problem with the manufacture of radionuclide batteries, the Jupiter system might be the best solution, for it is close enough to allow a probe to use solar panels instead of plutonium batteries.

  6. JBrandao says:

    pfffftt… scientists.. what the hell do they know?

    F****** Magnets, how do they work?

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