19 January 2015

Why Europa is more important than Mars

 A fascinating video from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

It's too bad the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission was cancelled back in 2005, or we might already have some answers.  One bit of good news re Europa investigation is this:
A future NASA mission to Europa became more likely today with the news that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) will assume leadership of the House's Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee. This committee writes the House's version of the yearly funding bills that include NASA and the NSF, and is extremely influential, particularly for smaller federal agencies like NASA.
Even Ted Cruz is supportive (note his constituency is Houston).


  1. I have always thought the obsession with liquid water in the search for alien biology was short sighted and anthropocentric. We once had only one example of a solar system and we assumed that most all of them were like our own. Now we find "hot jupiters" and other strangeness and we are forced to re-evaluate.

    I suspect someday in the far future we will feel the same way about life. We thought it was all water and DNA -> RNA -> Proteins. But it doesn't have to be. Look to silicon, look to methane, look to all the strangeness of xenobiology. We may find life where we least expect it. I suspect when we do find life out there we will have a hard time recognizing it as life.

    Of course, none of this means that we won't find life on Europa. It is an interesting place to explore.

  2. There are a multitude of examples in the fossil record and in existing life that is very far from anything remotely anthropocentric. There have been and are environments where humans wouldn't survive for the briefest of moments that have water and organisms that thrive in that water.
    There was life in the waters of earth for at least a billion years before there was oxygen to breath in the air. We may indeed be surprised when we find life elsewhere in the universe but looking where there is water simply makes sense.

    1. You are correct "anthropocentric" is the wrong word. But I don't know of a word meaning things-descended-from-the-one-and-only-case-of-abiogenesis-of-which-we-are-aware-centric.

      If we exclude novel hypotheses (with very little to no evidence supporting them) about life propagating itself via comets / meteors. The search for life is a search for someplace where another abiogenesis event occurred. And we have essentially no idea how the single abiogenesis event on our planet occurred.

      Maybe the kind of life here is very strange. After all, water (with dissolved salts) can be corrosive to a large number of substances. Maybe alien life considers water a deadly poison. That might be unlikely given that Hydrogen, Helium, and Oxygen are the three most common elements in the universe and therefore water is just a quick oxidation reaction away on many bodies. But we know of many places without much water as well.

      Then again, as you say, the one and only example of abiogenesis we have points toward a watery origin so it "makes sense" in an n=1 kind of way to look for more life that started in a very similar way to our own.

    2. Well, what do you propose they look for instead?

    3. I have no reason to believe that places where water lurks are bad places to look. But I find the obsession with water hard to understand. Every time one of these videos / TV specials / whatever is produced I am told that liquid water is essential to life which is mostly true of life on our planet (since a number of organisms can completely desiccate and yet remain alive) yet a completely unproven statement about other forms of life.

      Maybe we should be looking in the middle atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune. They are rich in Methane and other hydrocarbons. Carbon is handy for complex organisms since it has four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds, and the more bonds the more opportunity for complexity.


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