Current Weather
The Spy FM

Life On Mars? Try One Of Saturn’s Moons Instead

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
August 5, 2012

One of the things the Mars rover will look for is organic molecules that could at least indicate whether there was once life on the Red Planet. But if searching for life in outer space is the goal, many scientists now say we might have better luck elsewhere — specifically one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus.

NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay is working on a proposal to send a mission to Enceladus, which is more or less a frozen rock that’s not much more than 300 miles in diameter.

“Think of it as a small world or a large snowball,” McKay tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

But this large snowball is interesting to scientists such as McKay because there’s a geyser coming out of its south pole from what scientists believe is a subsurface body of liquid water, like a sea or a lake, which contains organic compounds.

It’s McKay’s job to look for life forms beyond Earth, and the discovery of organic compounds is a crucial piece to that puzzle.

“Of all the places in our solar system, It’s the only place I know of where right now we can check all the boxes for habitability,” he says, “water, energy, carbon, nitrogen — check, check, check, check.”

So why all the focus on Mars?

McKay says Mars holds a special place in space exploration because humans may actually visit and examine that planet. It was the first world where scientists discovered there was once water. It’s also appealing for possible biological and geological findings that can be discovered on Mars’ surface.

At this point, it would be practically impossible to land on Enceladus. But McKay says, even if it were possible, it wouldn’t exactly be a scenic site — more like a huge field of ice. But Enceladus tops his list for the search for life.

He was once asked, “If I had a little scooter like the Millennium Falcon, and I could go anywhere in the solar system, where would I go, what would I punch in first?”

His reply: “Enceladus.”

McKay is putting together a proposal for NASA to send a mission to the moon. The most recent findings come from the Cassini spacecraft that’s orbiting Saturn.

McKay estimates any mission would need at least 15 years to travel there, collect samples and return.

The only easy part about exploring the possibility of life on Enceladus is that the geyser is erupting water into space. So once there, it would be fairly easy to collect samples.

“It’s almost like there’s a big sign on Enceladus, it says ‘Free samples, take one,’” McKay says.

What continues to motivate McKay to push for a NASA mission on Enceladus is the possibility of life, especially if that life turns out to be different from life on Earth. He says that would allow humans, for the first time, to see what other ways life could be configured besides the DNA-based coding of life on Earth.

“It could be as simple as Earth-life — or it could be so different that we can’t even recognize it,” he says. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

Listen Live Now!

10AM to 11PM On Point

On Point

On Point unites distinct and provocative voices with passionate discussion as it confronts the stories that are at the center of what is important in the world today. Leaving no perspective unchallenged, On Point digs past the surface and into the core of a subject, exposing each of its real world implications.

View the program guide!

11AM to 12PM The Story

The Story

The Story with Dick Gordon brings the news home through first-person accounts. The live weekday program is passionate, personal, immediate and relevant to listeners, focusing on the news where it changes our lives, causes us to stop and rethink, inspires us.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center