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We could find life on another planet, but do we have the will?

Posted by Bill Nye

19-06-2014 10:46 CDT

Topics: Europa, Bill Nye

Are we alone in the universe?

This month’s National Geographic cover story takes a look at the question, including the latest developments in astrobiology and exoplanet research. The story also covers the Hubble Space Telescope’s recent discovery of geysers on Jupiter’s moon Europa that spew water from a subsurface ocean into outer space.

I wrote an accompanying opinion piece on NASA’s proposed Europa Clipper mission, which would send a spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter for an up-close look at Europa’s geysers. In the article, I write:

Europa's geysers present us Earthlings with a remarkable, tantalizing opportunity. We could design and built a robotic spacecraft that would fly through these plumes and sniff around. It would cost each U.S. taxpayer about the equivalent of one reasonably priced burrito, albeit without extra guacamole.

But, as I go on to say, there is currently no funding set aside to make the Europa Clipper mission a reality: 

The decision rests with the White House, which can ask permission from Congress to build the spacecraft, and with Congress, which can agree to set aside the money. That's where we at the Planetary Society come in. It's the reason my old professor Carl Sagan was one of the society's founders. We advance space science and exploration. With the support of our 45,000 members, people like you, we work with Congress and the administration, reminding them of the enormous value of planetary exploration and the great bargain that it is.

If you’re not already a member, consider joining us today to help us continue to advocate for bold missions like Europa Clipper. 

Europa from Galileo

NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk

Europa from Galileo
Color half-phase global view of Europa. The detail image was taken by Galileo on September 25, 1998. Color is from data taken on other orbits.
 
See other posts from June 2014

 

Or read more blog entries about: Europa, Bill Nye

Comments:

Arbitrary: 06/19/2014 11:20 CDT

Most people don't want to find life. They have been told, and without sceptical reflection believe, that humans are anti-life. That humanity is killing life on Earth and that our space flight, industry and energy better should be abolished. They believe that we are destroying even the air. Those are the ones who think that we must never try to find life on other planets, because they think that astronomers are murderers hunting for other planets to kill.

Stephen: 06/19/2014 12:32 CDT

With all due respect, the rhetorical jibe in the title for this article is ridiculous. It is the planetary science equivalent of John Kerry's challenge to Edward Snowden to "man up" and come back to the US to face trial. Both are attempts to strong-arm the reluctant into a decision favoured by one side but not the other. People have different opinions as to whether there may or may not be life under Europa's ice, whether or not a mission should be sent there to find out, which one that should be, how much it should cost, and whether that cost is worth paying. Different people have different opinions about such matters. But to boil all that down to whether or not America has the "will" to find such life is equivalent to asking whether America is "man" enough to find Europan life. It risks insulting the very people Europa Clipper supporters are going to need the support of if they truly want the mission to go. BTW, Europa Clipper needs to be about more than sighting geysers. The mission will not itself find life on Europa. That will be the task of a future mission. But that future mission will fail, or never be sent, if the Clipper fails to perform enough of the mission the Europa Orbiter would have done to justify sending that future life-finding mission.

Paul McCarthy: 06/20/2014 02:04 CDT

Can't agree "the rhetorical jibe in the title for this article is ridiculous"! Has Stephen looked or listened around him? We live in an age and with a media where EVERYONE is shouting all the time! (Was it ever truly any different apart from the media employed?). If you don't shout, you don't get heard. True, different individuals have differing views of preferred mission details, but the representatives of the Planetary Society are doing a good job (better than anyone else?) of shouting for the most important science goals. And it's far from clear that the very next Europa mission couldn't find life on Europa. An SLS-lifted mission which returned samples from an active plume could do exactly that in short time frame! Let us hope the mission proposals now invited are bold, exciting and (touch and go) funded by government.

Stephen: 06/20/2014 08:13 CDT

@Paul McCarthy. 1) Barracking is all very well for political rallies, but those who go shouting in the halls of Congress or the White House ("What do we want? A Europa Clipper! When do we want it? NOW!") will very likely be shown the door. The object should be to persuade, not deafen, much less drive those you want to convert to your point of view to regard you as, at best, ill-mannered, and maybe a kook. 2) Europa Clipper will NOT be returning samples, if only because that would vastly increase the cost and complexity of a mission which is supposed to be comparatively cheap. If the had wanted a more expensive mission they would stayed with the Europa Orbiter. Indeed, if they had wanted a "bold, exciting" mission they would have stayed with the Europa Orbiter. Many have settled on the Europa Clipper precisely BECAUSE it is the safer and less expensive little brother of the big, bold, exciting one. 3) Moreover, Europa is not Enceladus or Triton. Europa is surrounded by ionising radiation which would (probably) kill any Europan microbes which did get jetted up into space. Under the ice such life would be protected. Up in space it would not. Besides, Earth is a long way from Europa. Any trip back could take a decade (judging from the likely length of the trip out). You may not have any microbes left by the time any samples did arrive back!

hugo pacilio: 06/20/2014 05:24 CDT

unfortunately everything has to do with the money if a project goes more expensive insurance is rejected, and if it goes cheap possibly be adopted, but rather think you have to know what are the goals to send a probe to Europe, apart from and time it takes to reach its destination, the spacecraft industry, it takes time and sometimes more than a generation to create, build, send, get, study and finish mission, hopefully it concrete .......

Anonymous: 06/21/2014 01:15 CDT

@ Stephen Most media is shouting. I was using a bit of hyperbole when I said the planetary lobby needs to shout too. I don't think the title of the original article is shouting -- I think it's pitched about right. Re your other points: dead microbes from Europa would certainly be not 1% less dramatic than living ones!!! (Also, if you could guarantee your claim, it would be great -- because it would wipe out all Earth-contamination concerns, instantly making the mission cheaper, easier and more feasible!) And although Clipper wouldn't return samples, the call is currently for other mission architectures, which may or may not include the SAS which could get it there in 2 years and allow pretty rapid return. Let us see what hopefully bold ideas arise from factoring in the newly discovered plumes.

Paul McCarthy: 06/21/2014 02:42 CDT

@Stephen : Forgot to fill name, and SAS should be SLS obviously.

Casey Dreier: 06/21/2014 10:07 CDT

Stephen: I consider our collective "will" as a clear shorthand for many of the issues you raised, which is why Bill uses it particularly when writing for more general audiences, like readers of National Geographic. Does NASA have the will to fight for a new start for a Clipper mission in FY2016? Does OMB have the will to find a way to make the budgets work? These are real issues they face. It wasn't intended as a taunt, but as a rhetorical question to spark an exploration of the topic.

Sons of Zadok: 06/22/2014 03:30 CDT

Hi Bill I was wondering if instead of trying to find life on other planets, we could create our own planet, using a large nuclear powered electromagnetic,we could launch it into space and have it set in a orbit that's just the right distance from the sun, near a large asteroid field, when it is turned on it would pull in metal asteroid fragments in, and begin to grow in size, as it grows in size, it would all so start to have a gravitational pull, to pull in asteroids that are not metallic, the Earths core is liquid Iron, a nuclear reactor melt down inside the new planet, could create this liquid metal core, after it no longer needs the giant electromagnetic to help it grow.

Stephen: 06/23/2014 05:15 CDT

@Paul McCarthy You're assuming that there would be any dead microbe bodies left in the sample for scientists to find. I am not convinced there would be. Not after maybe a decade or so of travel through space.. They may (or may not) find chemical traces pf their remnants, but I doubt that would be worth the effect or expense, at least at this stage, especially when no one can yet say with any certaimty that there is even life in Europa, what kind it is, and where it resides, and therefore whether a sample return which only samples the spray of geysers would find anything definitive. As for your comment about use of the SLS, there are launch vehicles in the US inventory right now which could get a probe to Jupiter in only a couple of years. New Horizons, for example, is streaking through the solar system like a bat out of hell. The problem is that any probe whose objective is not just to get TO Jupiter but to go into Jovian orbit needs to have its own rocketry system so that it can slow itself sufficiently to do so. The faster it is going when it gets to Jupiter, the more propellant it will need to slow itself down enough to go into Jovian orbit. That means both a larger probe and a more expensive one. If the probe cost is to be capped at $1billion, a higher proportion of that money would (probably) have to be spent on just the hardware needed to get it into orbit than if the slower, more roundabout class of orbit Gaileo used to get to Jupiter To make matters worse, if on top of that you ALSO want the probe to get OUT of Jovian orbit as well, that would mean even MORE propellant and therefore devoting an even higher proportion of that $1 billion to the rocketry. And if you want that return to be rapid into the bargain, then that would mean even MORE propellant! And that's not counting the cost of the parachute, heat shield, and other paraphernalia needed by the sample return part to get it safely down to Earth's surface rather than burning up in its atmosphere.

Stephen: 06/23/2014 05:19 CDT

@Paul McCarthy As for NASA's current call for "other mission architectures", that call was for a $1 billion dollar mission (excluding launch vehicle), half the projected cost of a Europa Clipper. Such a bargain basement mission may have potential to further investigate the Jovian system, but NOT Europa. The entire point of the Europa ORBITER was provide the intel necessary to find places in Europa's ice shell where a lander could set down, drill through the ice to the (presumed) ocean below, and send a little submarine down to investigate that ocean below and whatever it might contain. It would have (hopefully) have also provided info on how far below the ice the ocean was and how deep that ocean might be so as to provide scientists and engineers with the info on what kind of pressures that little sub would need to endure and whether it might even be able to reach the bottom of that ocean where life-bearing habitats would be found. The Europa Clipper would be a cut-down version of the orbiter proposal. To now cut that down even further would risk sending a mission which may NOT be able to fulfil ALL the goals required before the lander/drill/sub mission could be sent. Which in turn would mean having to send yet ANOTHER mission to Europa to fill those blanks in, a mission which would (probably) not be sent before.the 2060s or 2070s (assuming the first Europa mission arrives in the 2030s and the next US outer planets mission after that will be a Titan one), which in turn may push the diver mission to some time in the 2100s! (Assuming that somewhere down the track this century there will be a push for a Neptune/Triton mission once the technology becomes more feasible.)

Stephen: 06/23/2014 06:18 CDT

@Casey Drier, At the moment, a US mission to Europa is basically all about money. If the money is not there, or insufficient money is there, there will be no mission. Or at best there' would be a Clayton's mission which will only do part of the job now required of such a mission. A job, which, for what my opinion is worth, is to gather the info required to send a Europa drill/diver mission. If insufficient info is available, then it would be folly to send the drill/diver until the blanks left could be filled in. That in turn would mean ensuring that any mission which does is properly funded. One alternative which has occurred to me is you could split the current plans for Europa mission (whether your yardstick is the orbiter or the clipper) into two or more smaller ones, which would be sent out over the course of this century. That would, however, almost certainly push the drill/diver mission into the 2100s given all the other non-Europan outer planets missions that would probably come queueing up for their rightful place in NASA's launch queue. In that respect I interpret NASA's recent call for scientists et al to come up with ideas for a $1 billion Europa mission as an attempt to search for feasible alternatives to either a $5+ billion Europa orbiter or a $2 billion Europa Clipper. Which in turn may suggest that they regard even a $2 billion mission to Europa as unattainable, at least under the present administration. Whether there is a feasible chance that Congressional action can make up the difference, you would know better than I, but if you hope to persuade hard-nosed congressional skeptics with an argument that goes: "Do you have will to cast a YES vote for the Europa Clipper?" I suspect (just MHO) that you will be met with a lot of cold shoulders. As for the Obama admin., I suspect you'd be wasting your breath. It has been trying to downsize American space exploration from day one and I do not see that changing no matter what arguments you level at them

Paul McCarthy: 06/24/2014 01:32 CDT

@Stephen Re the SLS and launch/rocketry/total costs of a Europa mission (briefly): you do, in places, seem to recognise that the current call is for a $1Bn mission EXCLUDING launch costs. So the upshot is that you (and I) do not yet know what might be possible in terms of the (possibly) relatively simple architecture of primarily sampling the plumes, and also combining it with the highly-capable SLS system (crucially, not as part of the $1Bn). It is therein that possibly (probably?) some dramatic, game-changing, fast-forwarding of Europan exploration lies. But we all eagerly await the new proposals.

Stephen: 06/25/2014 04:57 CDT

@Paul McCarthy Correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the impression you believe the SLS is not just a launch vehicle which, once it had sent a Europa probe on its way to Jupiter, would be discarded. You seem to think it would stay attached to the probe and accompany that probe all the way to Europa, and therefore would be available for use for getting said probe into Jovian orbit (and out again). If so then perhaps you're confusing the SLS with the Orion (manned) spacecraft, which (like Apollo) will have a service module for getting the craft into and out of lunar or Martian orbits.

Anonymous: 06/25/2014 07:21 CDT

@Stephen It can just get it there a helluva lot faster and increase payload limits, two tremendous benefits.

Paul McCarthy: 06/25/2014 07:38 CDT

@Stephen Hit the button too soon It can just get it there a helluva lot faster and relax payload limits; two tremendous benefits, the latter opening who knows what possibilities.

Stephen: 06/25/2014 02:32 CDT

@Paul McCarthy What would be the point getting out there like a bat out of hell if the probe does not have sufficient propellant to slow itself down into orbit, and then (once in orbit) to do anything useful there? Not to mention firing up and go shooting back to Earth like another bat our of hell. If it were that easy to get to Europa--indeed a sampole return mission to Europa--and could be done for only $1billion (+launch costs), then NASA's Mars Sample Return mission would suddenly become far more feasible. Rather than the $8-10 billion, triple-launch, budget-munching monstrosity it currently is NASA might be able to do it for a more feasible $4-6 billion and a single launch. :-)

Bill: 07/09/2014 06:41 CDT

I will say it again: There is very little practical reason to "look for life." Let's get out there and start mining, exploiting resources. If profit can be generated, no one will have to yell at Congress. Start by scraping a canister or two of He3 off the moon. THAT will get attention.

Larry Polsky: 08/07/2014 01:28 CDT

Brother Guy Consolmagno, appointed President of The Vatican Observatory Foundation, has written a book, "Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial?". It will be published this October and I suspect we will encounter Alien Life in the near future. Let's hope so - we certainly could use some help with Climate Control, Population Growth, Warfare, etc., etc....

Iain Maclean: 10/30/2014 03:22 CDT

If you think about it, Earth being the only planet in the universe able to sustain life is crazy when you put it to scale. On average, each star has at least one planet orbiting it. A galaxy usually has billions of stars, and there are billions of galaxies in the observable universe. All we need is the compound interest to find life, in my opinion.

R. Scott Russell: 11/15/2014 06:46 CST

Given the constraints of national budgets and the arbitrariness of politics perhaps "we" should be more inclusive. A quick, cursory count of national and international space agencies on this planet yields at least a half-dozen organizations that could feasibly participate in such an endeavor (NASA, CSA, ESA, ISRA, JAXA, Roscosmos, and CNSA). An international effort to explore the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn would benefit science for all. It would also prove to be an excellent exercise in cooperation, integration, and cultural exchange. Certainly the negotiations and ITAR-related issues among the many stakeholders would require both diplomatic and legal acumen on the part of all the members, but the gains for all should be incentive enough to move forward. Who cares how many flags are on the spacecraft? "We" should take up the challenge and go.

M45Birdy: 12/12/2014 08:00 CST

Where there is a "Bill", there is a way. (Could not resist!) TPS does so have the will and the way. I only wish I had the means to give more. Hey, all you billionaire 's out there, science needs you!

-cmm: 12/15/2014 12:28 CST

Bill, i Thanks for doing so much to promote human space travel. I was wondering if maybe we were looking in the wrong place for intelligent life. I've often thought that a space fairing civilization would seek out star systems without planets and more accessible bodies like asteroids, comets, and such as this would be useful, but planets might be just a waste of time and resources. -cmm

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