Could there be life under the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus?
NASA announced on Thursday that its Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn has gathered new evidence that there’s a chemical reaction taking place under the moon’s icy surface that could provide conditions for life. They described their findings in the journal Science.
“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.
However, the scientists think that because the moon is young, there may not have been time for life to emerge.
Don’t let the last paragraph get you down. Thrill, instead, at the possibilities. And thrill, even more, at the certainties. Because while Enceladus might not have life, the last sentence contains within it the seeds of a glorious “yet”, and with that, the possibilities explode like the limitless universe.
Let’s just take Enceladus, and assume that its youth has left it so far lifeless. But the idea that life could develop there, given time, expands our perceptions in both directions. Think of the idea that there could have once been life on Mars, or even on Venus, even just the merest microbes that were entirely annihilated with the slightest shift in orbit. Life developed over millions and billions of years, while the earth was lifeless, or as the first microbes emerged from a chemical sludge, and then disappeared. Entirely. Our centuries seem so vain compared to that eonic drama.
And then go forward: after we’ve wiped ourselves out and the earth starts to rebuild from our folly, maybe life will slowly bloom on Enceladus. It might not happen, but it might. It might spark to life and then fizzle out, unsuccessful. That has probably happened billions of times across the universe.
But the point is, it has happened. One of this blogs secondary yammering points has been that we’re past the point where any reasonable person could think there isn’t life outside of earth, or that there hasn’t been, or that there never will be. Mars once had water. Enceladus has the primary conditions for life. There are seven nearby planets that are the right distance from their star to contain life. There are “40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way.” Just the Milky Way! There are two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more things than can be contained in even our most outsized vanities.
The universe is far too big, and far too weird (look how weird Pluto is), to think we’re the only place this has happened. But that’s not so bad. We’re probably the only place where that weird chemical sludge whorled and zapped up the exact combinations that led to sequoias and dinosaurs and tree sloths and Tilda Swinton, and that’s awesome. We get to have Warren Zevon and playoff hockey. Neat!
None of this is to say that, given the size of the universe, and the certainty that we aren’t alone, that our problems are lessened. Because, functionally, we are alone. It’s not like any jerkass Enceladusian microbes are going to FedEx us a care package, much less a solution to our crippling frailties. The fact that we know that life certainly started in other places, even in our solar system, and was wiped out, a fate that will absolutely befall earth, should be enough to dim our self-destructiveness and work to make better the time we have. One would hope, anyway.
I’ve argued that since we are past the point where life in the universe can plausibly be doubted, even without definitive proof, something will slowly alter in our morals. It won’t happen overnight. It will be a generational thing, much like the Copernican “discoveries” began the slow erosion of Popish authority. Our perceptions of ourselves will change. And I think it could be for the better.
We might realize that far from being special, we’re lucky. We’re enormously lucky to be here, as a planet, as a species, and as individuals. Stretch back to the beginning of time and trace the events that led to your parents meeting. It’s impossible. So much could not have happened, and so much didn’t happen to other potential beings, other potential species. A wrong turn on a Sunday means your great-grandparents never chanced into each other or that you were just too far away from the sun to be warm, and so you’re a lifeless void.
It’s wild, these possibilities created by an endless universe. Maybe if we recognize that, if we recognize this glorious chance that lets us drink champagne with the ones we love, we won’t be so vainly self-destructive. If only we have time.
(Note: for a good scientific explanation of Enceladus, read Calla Cofield’s piece at Space.com)
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