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Space Oceans And Looking For Life

Oceans in Space. The new discovery on a moon of Saturn, and the possibility of life there.

This undated photo provided by NASA on April 2, 2014 shows Saturn's moon Enceladus. The "tiger stripes" are long fractures from which water vapor jets are emitted. Scientists have uncovered a vast ocean beneath the icy surface of the moon, they announced Thursday, April 3, 2014. Italian and American researchers made the discovery using Cassini, a NASA-European spacecraft still exploring Saturn and its rings 17 years after its launch from Cape Canaveral. (AP)

This undated photo provided by NASA on April 2, 2014 shows Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The “tiger stripes” are long fractures from which water vapor jets are emitted. Scientists have uncovered a vast ocean beneath the icy surface of the moon, they announced Thursday, April 3, 2014. Italian and American researchers made the discovery using Cassini, a NASA-European spacecraft still exploring Saturn and its rings 17 years after its launch from Cape Canaveral. (AP)

All kinds of excitement over potential life in space in the last week.  Light years away – maybe, but beguilingly – on a planet that looks amazingly like earth.  Squint and you can picture Earth-like oceans and land out there.  And much closer to home, on a moon in the rings of Saturn.  Icy and cold on the outside.  But inside, evidence of an underground ocean in space.  Sending geysers to the surface.  Lighting up astro-biologists’ fondest dreams.  Maybe teeming with life.  This hour On Point:  the buzz over life in space, maybe on an Earth-twin way out there, maybe on a moon close to home.  And the push to learn more.

– Tom Ashbrook


Carolyn Porco, leader of the imaging science team on the Cassini mission. Director of CICLOPS, the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations, at the Space Science Institute. (@CarolynPorco)

Chris McKay, senior scientist at the Space Science and Astrobiology Division at the NASA Ames Research Center.

Carl Murray, professor of mathematics and astronomy at the Queen Mary University of London.

From Tom’s Reading List

Washington Post: Cassini spacecraft finds sign of subsurface sea on Saturn’s moon Enceladus – “For years, the motto among astrobiologists — people who look for life in distant worlds, and try to understand what life is, exactly — has been ‘follow the water.’ You have to start the search somewhere, and scientists have started with liquid water because it’s the essential agent for all biochemistry on Earth. Now they’ve followed the water to a small, icy moon orbiting Saturn. Scientists reported Thursday that Enceladus, a shiny world about 300 miles in diameter, has a subsurface ‘regional sea’ with a rocky bottom.”

The Globe and Mail: Water detected on Saturn’s geyser moon raises hopes of finding alien life – “Scientists working with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have found the strongest evidence yet for an extensive liquid-water ocean beneath the frozen surface of Enceladus, a small, icy moon of Saturn. The moon is believed to have a rocky core, so the ocean would sit atop that core, centred under the south pole.”

National Geographic: Saturn’s Largest Moon Would Host Really, Really Weird Life – “Ask an astrobiologist about the prospect of finding life on Titan, and they’ll say the shrouded, orange moon is the place to go if you’re looking for bizarre life. Life that’s not at all like what we know on Earth. Life that, instead of being water-based, uses those slick, liquid hydrocarbons as a solvent. Life that, if we find it, would demonstrate a second genesis—a second origin—and be suggestive of the ease with which life can populate the cosmos.”

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  • brettearle

    Everyone assumes, Life as we know it.

    What about Life as we don’t know it?

    Who says other forms of life need water or oxygen or carbon dioxide or nitrogen?

    How would we know?

    • AnneDH

      I’ve been thinking all this for years. Thanks for your post!

      • brettearle

        We are the victims of anthropomorphic perception.

        We can’t envision what we can’t envision.

        • AnneDH

          But we can at least imagine a possibility even if we can visualize it.

          • brettearle

            I presume you meant, `can’t, for your second, `can’. .

            A further point might be:

            Our imaginations are too curtailed by our own Experience.


          • AnneDH

            Yes, you’re right: can’t.
            Yes, unfortunately our minds get more closed up as we get older.

          • brettearle

            Fortunately, that isn’t yet happening to me.

            And certainly not with others, as well. And hopefully not with you.

            I’m a Novelist–who is now utilizing his once un-facile mind….

    • nj_v2

      Not sure, but i think the reasoning is that the recognized elements are the same everywhere in the known universe. It may be possible that they could combine in other ways, but the assumption is that would likely arrange in ways similar to what we are familiar with on earth.

      • brettearle

        No, I understand that.

        But it doesn’t make what you have said 100% True–much less True at all.

        It could only, very possibly, be True…what you have said.

    • hennorama

      brettearle — but at least we know that we might not/don’t know.

      Chris McKay acknowledged this. This exchange began around 16:30 into the show:

      ASHBROOK: If there’s life from there — you’re the astrobiologist — what kind of life would this environment suggest it might be?

      McKAY: Well, based on our experience on Earth, which is only a datapoint of one, I remind you, but based on that experience, we’d expect microbes …”

      • brettearle

        Thing of it is, too, for me, Henn….

        Is that the 6 senses, for Humans, may be 17 senses for some other life forms or only 2 senses. Or minus 70 senses that these life forms once had but no longer have (or need).

        Food, as we know it, might destroy them.

        Sex might be like an electrocution.

        Reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology might help them build strong bones, 9 ways, for all I know.

        Good night and Good Luck…

        [Oh and our culprit from yesterday? His name is now `guest'. But the comments remain.

        Care to explain? How `bout a Graham?]

    • ExcellentNews

      We don’t know. That’s what makes space science so interesting and relevant.

      • brettearle

        Aren’t there a number of Aerospace scientists, who believe that Life can only be defined as we know it?

        When I said, `Everyone’ I meant the Consensus.

        It seems to me that the Consensus follows Aerospace’s lead.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Off Wiki:

    ‘The Fermi paradox (or Fermi’s paradox) is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilization and humanity’s lack of contact with, or evidence for, such civilizations.

    According to this line of thinking, the Earth should already have been colonized, or at least visited. But no convincing evidence of this exists. Furthermore, no confirmed signs of intelligence (see Empirical resolution attempts) elsewhere have been spotted, either in our galaxy or in the more than 80 billion other galaxies of the observable universe. Hence Fermi’s question, “Where is everybody?”‘

    ‘In planetary astronomy and astrobiology, the Rare Earth hypothesis argues that the emergence of complex multicellular life on Earth (and, subsequently, intelligence) required an improbable combination of astrophysical and geological events and circumstances. The hypothesis argues that complex extraterrestrial life requires an
    Earth-like planet with similar circumstance and that few if any such planets exist.’

    • Expanded_Consciousness
    • brettearle

      How can we prove that Life, as we don’t know it, can play by a whole set of different cosmic laws [including biological laws that operate totally differently than we know or understand]?

      We can’t prove that.

      So we therefore can’t prove that Life, somewhere else–a form of Life that we may not ever be able to identify, or understand, can’t exist…..

      ….regardless of whether that Form of Life has visited us; or regardless of whether the improbable factors for Life, as we DO know it, has ever coalesced somewhere else in the Universe.

    • Shag_Wevera

      I enjoyed your post. Thank you.

    • Kberg95

      The original Rare Earth hypothesis was put forth before the launch of the Kepler probe when the planets we had discovered were more likely to be hot Jupiters. The Kepler probe shows that statistical likelyhood of planets with liquid water are far higher than they were even 10 years ago. As far as I am concerned, the Rare Earth hypothesis has been superceded by the evidence.

      Our ability to detect intelligent life in our own galactic neighborhood, let alone the rest of the galaxy or others is hamstrung by our technology and the vast distances involved so the fact that we have not detected other intelligences means nothing, IMHO. We have been actively looking for only 50 years.

      As far as “Where is everybody?”. Well, Fermi knew the laws of physics as well as anybody else. Interstellar distances are immense. As a downeaster would say – “You can’t get theah from heah.” Interstellar travel would be an immensely costly proposition, even for a species with lifetimes much greater than our own and unless something in our understanding of physics changes radically, even travelling at a substantial fraction of C is not a viable proposition.

      At this juncture in history, we are far more likely to find life in our own solar system, on moons like Europa, Enceladus or Ganymede. It may be simple bacteria, but so what? Once we KNOW with certainty that life can develop on other worlds in our own solar system, the chances that intelligent life exists also go up dramatically, again given the probable numbers of planets in this galaxy, let alone all the others.

      I would say that we will probably be able to detect terrestrial-type planets in my lifetime by observing whether they contain atmospheres having oxygen. Once we do so, we can do targeted observations to see if these planets may host life more sophisticated than green slime.

      I am not put off by Fermi’s speculations or the Rare Earth hypothesis.

      • Coastghost

        The Fermi Paradox need not be construed so narrowly to apply only to extra-terrestrial intelligence: it applies equally to our own future should we wind up not locating other conscious inhabitants in the comparatively close or comparatively distant reaches of the baryonic portions of the universe.
        The Fermi Paradox also suggests that our fictional conceptions of “time travel” are nothing more than that, since our posterity already is not communicating with us from distant centuries or remote millennia. (Our future is not standing around awaiting our arrival, id est.)
        Our loneliness in the universe is compounded once we know ourselves to be deprived of God, neighbor, and posterity.

        • Kberg95

          Well . . . that’s a different spin. The Fermi paradox mentions nothing about time travel as I recall and I am not sure what that has to do with the current topic here.

          While we are on the subject, warp/hyper drive are more than likely to continue to be fictional as well.

        • ExcellentNews

          There is another angle to look at what you say. Intelligent life is evolving. In the distant future it may develop technology that makes it GOD. It then reaches back in time to create the current universe. Instead of being in our past, God may be in the future, and may be our posterity. Anyway, all this stuff is just philosophy, not science :)

    • creaker

      This assumes discovery is possible and interplanetary travel is feasible. That is stymied here just for economic reasons, much less the distances involved.

      • Kberg95

        Pretty much what I said.

  • Matt MC

    With all of our micro-computing power, I’m curious why we don’t launch ultra-compact probes to the outer reaches of our solar system. Why can’t they build a ship the size of my cell phone and send it out to investigate? Wouldn’t it require significantly less fuel and energy to escape orbit?

    • andic_epipedon

      Maybe no significant effort is being made because world leaders are afraid of finding aliens.

    • ExcellentNews

      Your cell phone will last about 15 seconds in space due to radiation and low temperature. Hardware for space missions has to be extra robust, is very customized, and that takes very long time to design (10+years). As a result, its embedded electronics are behind the times compared to consumer goods when launched.

  • Shag_Wevera

    Even Ed can’t possibly believe that life exists nowhere in the universe other than Earth.

    • brettearle

      He might believe it–but only if there’s a Christian Messiah.

  • andrea5

    I hope you will discuss the possibility of life on Jupiter’s moon Europa as well.

  • Coastghost

    How long until a faithful robot captures expelled water vapor from Enceladus?

    • Kberg95

      I would bet within the next 20 years myself.

  • Coastghost

    Science authors its own myths dependably: “artist’s representation of planet that has not yet been discovered or directly observed”.
    Eye candy for the science fideists, from the science mafia. Tsk and tut.

    • Ray in VT

      Feh and meh.

  • Coastghost

    How does Enceladus fare within Saturn’s magnetic and radiation profiles?

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    Watching the new ‘Cosmos’ with Neil DeGrasse Tyson I found out about tardigrades. It is amazing:


    • nj_v2

      Was a bit surprised one of the guests hadn’t even heard of them.

    • ExcellentNews

      It’s a pity that one of the guests characterized them as “microbes”. They are small, but they are highly complex multicellular animals – fundamentally not all that different from bugs or us.

  • Coastghost

    Is any mission (round-trip or otherwise) envisioned to the Oort Cloud?

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      I think that Voyager did this?

  • Coastghost

    Quarantine Enceladus samples to a lunar laboratory?

  • nj_v2

    Whoa! The answer to (paraphrasing) “Is it possible to create a fail-safe return system for bringing extra-terrestrial life back to earth?”…

    “We think so…”

    Cue science-fiction writers.

  • GavinZ

    I hope there is life on other planets or moons, but that humans never find it. First our probes contaminate their environment (materials, propellents, nuclear fuels…). Human’s first response would be to take “samples” to kill and dissect. Next comes ways to bring back samples to Earth for examination. Next comes ways to exploit the life form. Human discovery imperils the life-forms continued existence. Look at how we’re killing our own Mother Earth–the jewel among planets.

    • tbphkm33

      Humans do behave more like parasites than anything else. Maybe the future will bring change – maybe the impending resource crunch and resulting social reorganization will see the advent of a human society that lives more in harmony with nature. Maybe we will just end up destroying our environment and ourselves in the process.

    • Kberg95

      “Woody Mammoth” ???

      • GavinZ

        Ha ha ha! I’m gonna try and blame auto complete for that one. :-)

  • Jeff Barbour

    For astrobiologists, the first step in determining the possibility of extraterrestrial life is to identify planets with orbital paths permitting the possibility of liquid water. The presence of life, however, is largely confirmed by the presence of oxygen gas in the atmosphere, since oxygen is a relatively reactive chemical and can only be sustained by biological processes such as those going on in living things. Keep in mind, however, that life — in the form of primitive single cell organisms — may also be assumed present when methane gas is found in the atmosphere — as is the case with Mars.

    We can only hope that the future James Webb telescope (replacing the HST) will have enough resolution to detect water vapor, methane and oxygen in planetary systems as distant as 500-1000 LYs. Perhaps Tom should do a show on this topic…

    In terms of our own solar system, NASA is more likely to fund a mission to Saturn’s Enceladus, rather than Jupiter’s Europa — since such a probe need only fly through Enceladus’ vapor plume — rather than having to land on the surface and melt its way through the hydrosphere.

    BTW: Science, per se, is not inimical to the environment. It’s the perversion of science for military purposes and corporate profits that should keep us vigilant in regards to this and other worlds…

    • ExcellentNews

      Well said! The right-wing trolls have skipped this program, which sadly brings to the fore comments from our own “progressive” nuts.

  • Allen Horner

    I think that, getting beyond the gee-whiz of all this, science has to consider the practical. For perspective, this earth-like planet we are seeing is as it was 500 years ago, I might remind the listeners that on our own planet, that was about the time Copernicus proposed the heliocentric view of the solar system, the great plague occurred in England, and Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation, amongst other things of antiquity. So traveling at the speed of light, we are talking about a long lead time. Also, radio waves in space travel about the same speed as light. We have only had radio transmissions in volume that would take them only 20% of the way to this planet. Assuming they WERE in the same stage as we are 500 years ago, we might hear something;; if not, what are we listening for?

    But if we get there and find there’s nothing the small consolation is that we might not be here either in 2525!

    For Enceladus, my main concern is contamination — not of the organisms but of us. Earth will have no natural immunity to whatever organisms we bring here. Landing a sample as a projectile like a meteor does not seem to be the right idea. [For comic comparison, just watch "Men in Black"] The idea of intercepting the sample for isolation in the space station or a moon colony seems more practical. That the robotics and manned space groups can’t get together due to bureaucracy means we should not do this until they can — Earth’s civilization could depend on it and we don’t need bureaucrats to do us in. But we need to be careful about his with our visits to other worlds.

    • ExcellentNews

      Science DOES consider the practical – it is in fact the only human endeavor that is practical, and that enables us to evaluate “practicality”. When the first atomic bomb was developed, scientists were the only ones to consider the small risk that the unprecedented heat of the explosion might ignite the nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere. The generals just went ahead…

    • ExcellentNews

      Oh, and a small detail that might send you learning something new. We do not “see” the planet as it was 500 years ago. According to special relativity, we see it as it is “now” in our local frame of reference (i.e. there is no such thing as absolute now or absolute simultaneity). If there are inhabitants on that planet, they “now” see Earth as it is “now” in their local reference frame. I know this makes no sense to our ape brains, but the math and data shows this is how the world works indeed.

  • ExcellentNews

    The probability that life on Earth will be gone is 100%. There are an estimated 100+ billion species that have existed during the 4 billion year history of life on Earth. ALL have become extinct when their environment changed. ALL existing species will become extinct for the same reason. The environment WILL change, with or without us. Wait long enough, and the Sun (whose energy output is increasing, as is natural for all stars in this stage of their life) will render Earth un-inhabitable even for robots.

    There is ONLY one species on Earth that has a sliver of hope to NOT become extinct. That is MAN, thanks to his INTELLECT. Yep – the “idiot savants” are the hope of mankind. For otherwise, we can built grass huts, flex our muscles in ritual dances, and munch on “zero-carbon” organic mushrooms all we want – we will still be gone in a blink like the billions of other animal species who did go about in their animal ways. Science and technology are the only endeavors that give us a small chance of survival beyond that.

  • ExcellentNews

    Excellent program! More like this, please. It’s a refreshing change from apes hollering about Guver’mint taking away their guns and religion.

  • Guest

    Fascinating story, thanks On Point.

Jul 29, 2014
The U.S. Senate is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 16, 2014. (AP)

The “Do-Nothing” Congress just days before August recess. We’ll look at the causes and costs to the country of D.C. paralysis.

Jul 29, 2014
This April 28, 2010 file photo, shows the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, Mont. Colstrip figures to be a target in recently released draft rules from the Environmental Protection Agency that call for reducing Montana emissions 21 percent from recent levels by 2030. (AP)

A new sci-fi history looks back on climate change from the year 2393.

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U.S. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker watches as wounded American soldiers arrive at an American hospital near the front during World War I. (AP Photo)

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This June 4, 2014 photo shows a Walgreens retail store in Boston. Walgreen Co. _ which bills itself as “America’s premier pharmacy” _ is among many companies considering combining operations with foreign businesses to trim their tax bills. (AP)

American companies bailing out on America. They call it inversion. Is it desertion?

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