If we find, anywhere in the universe, one more instance of life besides what 
evolved on Earth, then we are bound to conclude that life is common throughout 
the vastness of this galaxy and the 200 billion other galaxies.  The discovery 
would change how we think about everything.

Most of the search for life beyond Earth, Porco explained, is the search for 
habitats.  They don’t have to look comfy, since we know that our own 
extremophile organisms can survive temperatures up to 250°F, total desiccation, 
and fiercely high radiation, high pressure, high acidity, high alkalinity, and 
high salinity.

In our own Solar System there are four promising candidate habitats — Mars, 
Europa (a moon of Jupiter), Titan (a moon of Saturn), and Enceladus 
(“en-SELL-ah-duss,” another moon of Saturn).  They are the best nearby 
candidates because they have or have had liquids, they have bio-usable energy 
(solar or chemical), they have existed long enough to sustain evolution, and 
they are accessible for gathering samples.

On Mars water once flowed copiously.  It still makes frost and ice, but present 
conditions on Mars are so hostile to life that most of the search there now is 
focussed on finding signs of life far in the past. Europa, about the size of 
Earth’s Moon, has a salty ocean below an icy surface, but it is subject to 
intense radiation.  Photos from the Hubble Space Telescope revealed that 
occasional plumes of material are ejected through Europa’s ice, so future 
missions to Jupiter will attempt to fly by and analyze them for possible 
chemical signatures of life.

The two interesting moons of Saturn are Titan, somewhat larger and much denser 
than our Moon, and tiny Enceladus, one-seventh the diameter of our Moon.  Both 
have been closely studied by the Cassini Mission since 2004.  Titan’s hazy 
atmosphere is full of organic methane, and its surface has features like dunes 
and liquid-methane lakes “that look like the coast of Maine.”  But it is so 
cold, at 300°F below zero, that the chemical reactions needed for life may be 
too difficult.

Enceladus looks the most promising.  Cassini has sampled the plumes of material 
that keep geysering out of the south pole.  The material apparently comes from 
an interior water ocean about as salty as our ocean, and silica particles may 
indicate hydrothermal vents like ours.  “I hope you’re gettin excited now,” 
Porco told the audience, “because we were.”  The hydrothermal vents in Earth’s 
oceans are rich with life. Enceladus has all the ingredients of a habitat for 
life — liquid water, organics, chemical energy, salts, and nitrogen-bearing 
compounds.  We need to look closer.

A future mission (arriving perhaps by the 2030’s) could orbit Enceladus and 
continually sample the plumes with instruments designed to detect signs of life 
such as complexity in the molecules and abundance patterns of carbon in amino 
acids that could indicate no biology, or Earth-like biology, or quite different 
biology.  You could even look for intact organisms.  Nearly all of the material 
in the plumes falls back to the surface. Suppose you had a lander there.  “It’s 
always snowing at the south pole of Enceladus,” Porco said. “Could it be 
snowing microbes?”

(A by-the-way from the Q&A: Voyager, which was launched 40 years ago in 1977, 
led the way to the outer planets and moons of our Solar System, and five years 
ago, Porco pointed out, “It went beyond the magnetic bubble of the Sun and 
redefined us as an interstellar species.”)

                                                                —Stewart Brand  
s...@longnow.org <mailto:s...@longnow.org>

[A linkable, illustrated version of this summary is on Medium 
<https://medium.com/@stewartbrand/life-nearby-e0263ca0f162>.  Video and iPod 
versions of the talk itself are on the Long Now Seminar page 

SALT mailing list
unsubscribe / change email: http://list.longnow.org/mailman/listinfo/salt

Reply via email to