Life in the Solar System


By gregbentall on May 28, 2012 | Edit

One of the most poignant questions that we face is, “Are we alone?”  Space is so infinitely vast, with hundreds of billions of galaxies, each one home to hundreds of billions of stars.  With such vastness of space it seems hard to believe that there is not someone else out there.  But our chances of linking up may be near zero.  Perhaps other civilizations have come and gone while we were still in the age of the dinosaurs, or even in the Bronze Age.  We may never know.  Just as once oceans and mountain ranges separated one tribe of humans from another, so may the vastness of space and time separate us from other intelligent life.

Flying Saucer Attacks Vancouver

But the question of life in beyond the earth is becomes a much different question if we are speaking of simple life forms.  There may be simple life forms to be found on other bodies in our solar system.  There is a chance that we will find some primitive organisms on Mars.

Mars is a near miss in terms of the development of life.  It is possible and perhaps even likely that life evolved on Mars.  But Mars as a life bearing planet had one fatal defect.  It was simply too small to sustain life for the extended period that it takes to develop an intelligent, technological society.

Mars simply was too small and cooled too quickly.  In the beginning it had a magnetic field generated by its core of molten iron.  Our robotic missions to Mars have found evidence of a likely place for life to evolve.  But as the small planet cooled, it lost its magnetic field and the force field that it created.  With the force field gone, the solar winds were able to strip Mars of its atmosphere and liquid water, and to bombard the surface with lethal doses of radiation.

But there are other sites in the solar system that are even more likely to harbor current life forms, places such as Jupiter’s Europa or Saturn’s Enceladus.  Both moons contain vast amounts of liquid water.  And we have found that where there is water there is life.

Europa shows signs of a liquid ocean below its frozen ice caps. Could this reddish brown stuff emerging from the cracks in the ice flows and spreading on the surface be a life form???

But there are other sites in the solar system that are even more likely to harbor current life forms, places such as Jupiter’s Europa or Saturn’s Enceladus.  Both moons contain vast amounts of liquid water.  And we have found that where there is water there is life.

Europa is covered with a frozen ice cap, much like the one found at earth’s North Pole.  We know that there is liquid water below the ice cap because the ice flows jostle around without any fixed reference points.  This shows that the ice is free floating above a liquid ocean below.

The ice on Europa floats about in broken flows, separated by dark red bands at the fracture points.  Here is a thought.  What if the reddish-brown crud that we see at the cracks in the ice flows and spreading on the surface of Europa are actually primitive life forms, something like an algae or bacteria?  If so, we might then be looking at extraterrestrial life forms with our earthbound telescopes.  We will never know until we get there and explore.

Cryobot prototype (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ideal mission to Europa would be to send a robotic space probe equipped with a submarine.  First we would check the surface. Then the submarine would melt its way through perhaps six miles of ice in order to submerse itself in the ocean below.  What it would find there is anyone’s guess.  But we might be pleasantly surprised.  We might find some primitive, single cell life forms, but we might also find some more advanced live forms, such as tube worms, shrimp, and perhaps even something similar to a squid.

And, if we can find a second example of life emerging in our solar system, than we can safely conclude that life is ubiquitous throughout the galaxy.

Such a mission to Europa would cost less than one one-thousandths of the cost of a manned mission to Mars, and just might lead us to a vastly more significant discovery.

Greg

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