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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Life on Enceladus?

Timothy Birdnow

Microbial life on Saturn's moon Enceladus?

From the article:

"In a series of tantalizingly close flybys to the moon, named "Enceladus," NASA's Cassini spacecraft has revealed watery jets erupting from what may be a vast underground sea. These jets, which spew through cracks in the moon's icy shell, could lead back to a habitable zone that is uniquely accessible in all the solar system.

"More than 90 jets of all sizes near Enceladus's south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds all over the place," says Carolyn Porco, an award-winning planetary scientist and leader of the Imaging Science team for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. "Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth's oceans."

Thermal measurements of Enceladus's fissures have revealed temperatures as high as -120 deg Fahrenheit (190 Kelvin). "If you add up all the heat, 16 gigawatts of thermal energy are coming out of those cracks," says Porco.

The watery plumes of Enceladus come from icy fissures nicknamed "tiger stripes." [more] She believes the small moon, with its sub-surface liquid sea, organics, and an energy source, may host the same type of life we find in similar environments on Earth."

End excerpt.A

The discovery of life that developed outside of Earth's ecosystem would be huge. Scientists now have another candidate for life; in the solar system there is suspicion that life may exist on Mars, under the ice dome of Europa, and perhaps (less likely) on a couple of the other Galilean moons, perhaps in the atmosphere's of Jupiter and/or Saturn, and now Enceladus. Of course, nothing has yet been found. A few years back it was announced that life was found on Mars, but the claim's evidence was not so solid. At present we can only prove our own planet is inhabited.

It would also go a long way in the endless and unproductive battle between Darwinists and those who think otherwise; an independently evolved life form would give us some clues as to whether Darwinian-style Natural Selection is at work, some other form of evolution, or whether the Intelligent Design people have a point. At present we only have our genetic cousins to study, even those strange creatures that inhabit volcanic vents are genetically related. If we could find a life form that came about independently of our DNA/RNA sequencing...

That's a big if.

But we'll keep looking as long as we exist. It's lonely being the only known life-forms in the Universe. And it upsets the modern view of science which says Man and Earth hold no unique place, but are merely "garden variety" entities in a vast impersonal Universe. Carl Sagan, astronomer and carnival barker of the television show Cosmos, often pilloried his audience with this very thing. But he was wrong in so many ways; the sun is a G2 yellow dwarf, unusual in itself because 9 out of 10 stars are red dwarfs. It is unusually stable; while it does flare it is not a flare star, meaning it does not cook us periodically. It is a bachelor, too; most stars exist in binaries or clusters. (Imagine having another sun as far away as Neptune, as Alpha Centari does! There are Alpha A {another G2 yellow just slightly larger than our sun} and Alpha B a yellow-orange K4 star, and tiny Proxima, a red dwarf M5e) Our solar system has planets (not uncommon) and has three of them (plus some asteroids) in the liquid water band. Only one of the three is the right temperature for life, but the fourth could have been in the past. (Having liquid oceans is huge.) The second was always a bit warm, and is not far too warm, but there is still a slight chance for life floating in the Venusian clouds. Earth has an enormous satellite, fully a quarter of the size of the planet, and composed of silicates and rocks rather than ice as the Jovian satellites or Titan. We are far enough from the center of the galaxy to avoid dangerous radiation, but not too far out. Our sun puts out a stream of charged particles that sweep away interstellar dust and cosmic rays. Earth seems ideal for life - almost designed for it. That is what is meant by the Anthropic Principle (although it goes much, much further and says that the Universe is ideal for our existence, and the slightest change in any factor would mean we would not exist.)

Ever since Copernicus science has assumed Man is not unique, and the lack of life outside of our planet is a huge reproach to that view. Atheists hate it, because atheism is built on the presupposition that the material universe is all there is, and strange uniquenesses suggest Man was gifted by some exterior entity. Man has to be shown as random and uninteresting, or the philosophical structure of atheism collapses.

So the discovery of life will have enormous implications, enormous influence on our beliefs. Granted, it matters not in the argument for the existence of God, but it matters a great deal for the non-existence of Him, and so the discovery of life will be heralded as "proof" there is no God. (Not sure why God couldn't create all manner of life if he could do it once, but there you have it.) It is critical to the new atheist.

But it will be fun regardless. As I said, it's lonely being the only creatures in a Universe as vast as ours.

Perhaps there is life on Enceladus? Perhaps not. It won't stop our looking.

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