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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2012-05-02 21:26
Subject: Life on Europa...?
Security: Public
In the news today: the ESA approves a mission to Jupiter to assess its moons for the potential for life.

I was a teenager when I read 2010: Odyssey Two and was entranced by its depiction of life in the oceans of Europa, deep beneath its thick, icy crust. As the Voyagers concurrently proceeded on their Grand Tour of the solar system, it became apparent that Europa, or possibly some of the other outer Galilean satellites of Jupiter, were the only places in the solar system other than Earth to have a reasonable chance of supporting life (or life based on carbon chains with water as a solvent anyway; there are, I'm sure, other local optima for life in the sea of hostile chemistry, in conditions very very different from here on Earth, but they're difficult for us to predict).

One of the exciting things about this was the realisation that it might turn out possible, within my lifetime, to find out the truth about Europa (or wherever) for certain, by launching a probe there which would touch down, melt its way through the crust, and have a sample of (or even release an autonomous underwater craft into) the moon's briny ocean. In a way, the Russians are doing something similar at the moment with Lake Vostok, melting down through the Antarctic ice cap to same the waters of the lake to see if it contains life cut off for the rest of the biosphere for the last fifteen million years.

What's frustrating, though, is the slow rate of progress. Galileo was sent to Jupiter in 1989, arrived there in 1995, and provided evidence in favour of Europa possessing an ocean, but no more. A NASA mission was planned, but was cancelled in 2002; a further mission was proposed but cancelled in 2005. Now the latest ESA mission is tentatively given the green light, but it won't launch in 2022, won't get there until 2030, won't touch down on any moon, and certainly won't drill through the ice. Its mission is to assess the possibility that the moons could host life, not to actually search for it.

If it returns a favourable answer, I'm sure eventually a mission will be mounted to actually search for life on the Galilean satellites, but by the time that launches I'll be an old man, and who knows whether I'll survive long enough to see it get there and start the search for real.

It's frustrating. It shouldn't have to take over sixty years from when Clarke wrote 2010, bringing the possibility of life on Europa to public attention, to find out whether it's science fiction or fact. I want to see an answer to this question in my lifetime! (It's the only lifetime I've got.)

—Originally posted on Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comments. Please comment there using OpenID or a DreamWidth account (which you no longer need an invite code to create). Though I am leaving comments enabled on LiveJournal for a bit, please don't comment here if you can do so there instead.
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November 2015