The Warm Seas of Enceladus

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is alien life out there, in our solar system and beyond.  To the extent that people still cling to the geocentric notion that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life, it’s time to think again.

enceladusThe latest indicator of that reality came yesterday, when NASA announced that its Cassini spacecraft had found promising signs that alien life may exist on Enceladus, one of the moons orbiting Saturn.  Cassini flew through a plume that was spraying out of the icy shell covering Enceladus and detected molecular hydrogen.  That’s a big deal because molecular hydrogen is created by interaction between warm water and rock, and along with carbon dioxide is the kind of food that early, microbial life forms can thrive on.  Scientists believe that life on Earth may have started in the same kind of environment surrounding the deep geothermal vents in our oceans — and if life started here, why shouldn’t it also occur in the same environment elsewhere?

Does that mean that there is, in fact, some form of life already existing on Enceladus?  Not necessarily, because the large amount of molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide detected by the Cassini spacecraft suggests that there isn’t much, if any, bacteria or microbial life on Enceladus actually consuming the food — a fact that doesn’t surprise scientists, because they think Enceladus is relatively young and it takes a long time for life to emerge.

But equally intriguing is that NASA also announced that the Hubble telescope found evidence of similar plumes on Europa, a much older moon orbiting Jupiter.  Because Europa has apparently been around for billions of years longer than Enceladus, the combination of molecular hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and time might have allowed life to gain a foothold there.  It’s something we’re going to have to explore.

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Treasure-Hunting Around Mars

Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus.  If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash.  With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.

We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.

1200x600The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes.  It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron.  The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars.  How big is a quadrillion?  Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth.  Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche.  Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.

Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive.  We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space.  And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.

So — why not get back into space, already?  We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity.  In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter.  Who knows?  Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.

With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward.  I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.

Legocide

Aboard the NASA probe Juno, currently speeding toward the planet Jupiter, are three special Lego figures.  Representing Juno, Jupiter, and Galileo Galilei, these Legos are made of aluminum, the same material as the spacecraft itself.  NASA came up with the idea of having the Lego figures ride along to get kids interested in the mission, and the folks at Lego, who are big on education, gladly went along with the idea.

But here’s the key thing:  when the Juno mission is over, the Juno will fly into Jupiter itself, where it and its Lego passengers will be consumed by fire.

lego_color_bricksHah!  Take that, you Lego bastards!  Burn, baby, burn!

Admittedly, these special aluminum Legos have done nothing to me to deserve being consigned to fiery death in the poisonous atmosphere of a faraway gas giant.  But I say that it is a fitting end nevertheless.

I well remember the days when gaily colored Legos coated the carpets of our homes, when you couldn’t walk a few barefoot steps in the darkened early morning hours without painfully encountering the sharp edges of a stray Lego block, and when elaborate Lego kingdoms and cities and spaceports dotted the environs as semi-permanent parts of the Webner family household.

I remember when trying to get the kids to pick up the legions of Legos was a fun daily parenting challenge.  I recall the back-breaking chore of picking up the tiny individual bricks and figures and special accessories, and the distinctive clunking, plastic-on-plastic sound that the Legos made as you tossed them, one by one, back into the plastic tubs that they called home.  At one point, there were likely thousands of Legos under our roof, lurking under our furniture and nestled in the cushions of our sofas and chairs, ready to be sat on by an unwary grandparents.

So yes, I remember the Lego days.  Burn them, I say.  Burn them all!

Sowing Earthlife

Those who are intrigued by the possibility of extraterrestrial life may be interested in a study that indicates that Earth itself could have been the source of life on other planets and moons in our solar system.

The study looked at the dispersion of debris from asteroid impacts on the Earth’s surface.  It found that such debris is far more likely to reach Mars, or even Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, than was previously thought.  If such debris contained small life forms, they therefore could have reached other places that are capable of sustaining life.  Of course, any microbes and other organisms on the debris would have to be hardy enough to survive years of travel through space, exposure to radiation, the fall to the surface of another planet, and the different atmospheres and living conditions on those planets — but we know that there are organisms that can survive such conditions, and we also know that life is tenacious and is found in even the most hostile and extreme climates on Earth.

We won’t know, of course, whether this scenario could actually have produced life elsewhere until we find such life and test it.  If we do find such life, however, it will give new meaning to the phrase “Mother Earth.”

 

Looking For Life, On Europa

A close photo of Europa

The BBC website has an interesting article and clips from a TV show about the possibility of life on Europa, an ice-bound moon of Jupiter that is about the same size of Earth’s Moon.  The theory is that all life on Earth has one common element — liquid water — and that studies of Europa indicate that beneath its sheath of ice is a significant amount of liquid water where life could be found.  The scientists compare Europa to inhospitable parts of Earth, like the caves underneath an Icelandic glacier where micro-organic life is found, and ask why life could not therefore be found on Europa.

Check our the videos attached to the article, which are really interesting and well done.

A Big Hole In the Sky

A photo of the atmospheric scar left by the apparent comet hit on Jupiter

A photo of the atmospheric "scar" left by the apparent comet hit on Jupiter

Last week NASA reported on an apparent large comet strike on Jupiter that left a visible “mark” on that gas giant’s upper atmosphere.  The object punched through Jupiter’s sky near its south pole, and the notable change in Jupiter’s appearance was first spotted by an amateur astronomer in Australia.

I mention this because I think the photo above is cool and because the white mark left by the object is the size of Earth!  That’s right — the hole in the atmosphere made as the object burned through is the size of our entire planet.  That fact just reaffirms the awesome size of Jupiter, which according to NASA statistics is 1,316 times the volume of Earth.  (Remember the science class where the teacher explained that if Jupiter was the size of a basketball, the earth would be the size of a marble, or something similarly tiny?)  And, get this:  Jupiter has 62 officially recognized moons.  It has so many moons that they haven’t yet come up with mythological names for all of them, and as of moon number 50 they have been given uninspiring names like “S 2003 J2.”

The number of moons just reaffirms why we should all be glad that Jupiter is out there.  Jupiter’s mass and size is such that it acts as kind of cosmic Dirt Devil, sucking up many of the bits of cosmic debris roaming our little corner of the galaxy and keeping them from reaching the inner parts of the solar system and menacing our fair planet.  Jupiter, thanks for taking one for the team!