Wired.com 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 Wired.com asked Dr. Porco which moon she would bet on for extraterrestrial life.
Wired.com: 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:
Wired.com: 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.