Thursday, April 02, 2009

Searching for Life from On High




I have been meaning to write this entry for a long time. Since the discovery that Saturn's moon Enceladus has active liquid water geysers, people have speculated that life might be present there, and follow up missions to Cassini have been proposed to perhaps go to Enceladus and see what, if anything, is living there. But apparently, anything that is sent to Saturn will set back a space agency something on the order of a billion dollars, so don't expect anything soon.
That said, I tend to think that a low-level Enceladus orbiter could do a lot of good. The orbital velocity around Enceladus is a measly 500 mph or so, the speed of a commercial jet liner. Compared to a 10,000 mph flyby, whatever life might smack into the windshield of the low-level orbiter would have a far better chance of remaining intact.

So my mission plan would be to fly a spacecraft to Enceladus, put out a scoop while orbiting the moon for a while (6 months, a year, or until the target is nicely loaded with ice) while simultaneously taking lots of pictures and engaging in other experiments, seal up the target, drop off all the extraneous instrumentation, and fly back to earth. I admit this idea glosses over how to get to and get back from Enceladus in the first place, but that's the plan. NOTE: The mission price could be dropped substantially by adding a lab to the spacecraft, but in past NASA missions life detection gear on the spacecraft has always returned mixed results. It makes one wonder if NASA is really all that keen about discovering alien life.

Speaking of smashed bugs on the windshield, one might be able to do a Mars sample-return mission without actually going to Mars. The theory being that if Earth has been pummeled with the occasional martian meteorite, the Phobos and Deimos have been inundated with them. The Phobos-Grunt sample-return mission, will likely be picking up pieces of Mars as well as pieces of Phobos. The tricky bit will be sifting through the pieces and deciding which bits are Mars and which bits are Phobos. I imagine in some places they may need to dig down through a fair bit of Mars material just to reach the pristine Phobos bits underneath.

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