Tiny Aliens

October 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

Water. Over 60% of our bodies consist of it. Without it, we can barely survive for a week. And under certain conditions, that number decreases drastically.

In space, water is potential. Water signifies the possibility of life. Even if it does not necessarily support life on its own, it gives us hope that we may be able to venture out to some distant place and survive there. So the prospect of water in space is exciting. No wonder we spend so much time looking for it.

Cassini-Huygens, a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, was launched in 1997. It made its way to Saturn, arriving there and establishing orbit in 2004. In 2005 it made its first flyby of Enceladus, the sixth largest moon of Saturn. The images captured intrigued scientists. Enceladus shot up to one of the solar system bodies of greatest interest. What scientists saw, or they thought they saw (there was a lot of background noise) were icy plumes coming up from the southern pole of the moon. The question was: is it water?

Subsequent flybys yielded information that allowed scientists to announce strong evidence for a regional sea in 2014. In September 2015 new gravity data turned this regional sea into a global ocean. Scientists believe that Enceladus’s wobble as it orbits Saturn can only be accounted for by the presence of a such a body of water.

Just two days ago, Cassini made a historic flyby, just 30 miles off the south pole of Enceladus. It’s the probe’s deepest dive into the icy plume. Besides taking some great photographs, the probe collected a droplet of water. That drop is now being analyzed, with scientists interested in finding indication of molecular hydrogen. Such a find would confirm a geothermal energy source on the moon’s surface. The amount of molecular hydrogen detected will reveal the scope of geothermal activity.

So what now? Well, the the collected information will take months to process. A final flyby will occur on December 19th, during which Cassini will measure the amount of heat radiating from the moon’s interior.

While Cassini does not have the capability to detect life, the amount of geothermal activity will provide insights into how habitable the oceans really are. Enceladus may be one of the most likely candidates to host microbial life in the solar system. It would be something akin to certain types of microbial life present on Earth. These life forms feed off of chemical reactions between rocks, as well as radioactive decay.

The life we might find on Enceladus may not be intelligent, but, ladies and gentlemen, this could be first contact.

Confused Vulcan

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§ One Response to Tiny Aliens

  • Thanks for this post — informative, well-researched, thoughtful, and concise. I had no knowledge of this project, but I am fascinated by its purposes and by the findings it has already made. So, in short, I appreciate you for drawing Cassini-Huygens to my attention.

    Additionally, your final comment was of particular interest, as the manner in which you framed it caused me to consider our insistence on finding intelligent life, rather than just any life at all. I understand that humans are fascinated by what makes them unique and peculiar and that our supposed intelligence is the only significant trait that distinguishes us from other organic matter on Earth, but I do feel as though we insist on finding intelligence out there, when some basic organisms would be pretty remarkable.

    Besides, what we call intelligence is so influenced by our own interaction with the world – isn’t a little peculiar that the very characteristic we’ve deemed the highest and most valuable characteristic to recognize in some hypothetical living organism is the trait that we possess? Are we just that arrogant, or do we fear that what we might find won’t exist in our image? Both? Neither? I’m not sure, but something’s fishy.

    Finding some basic micro-organism, like what this project might do, would be so remarkably valuable when considering questions of the uniqueness or the rarity of life – I agree that it shouldn’t be held to a lower standard simply because we won’t be able to have an intricate conversation with these hypothetical aliens.

    — Lucas Hilliard

    Like

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