I recently went to a lecture on Jupiter’s Moon Europa by Dr. Don Blankenship of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. He is part of a team designing a radar system to explore beneath the ice that covers Europa to see what lies below. (The lecture is available as a webcast).
It was fascinating stuff. He explained how use of radar to study beneath the surface in Antarctica and other frozen places on Earth have helped scientists develop the tools so that they know how to use it for Europa. He commented on the competing theories over how thick the ice cover is on Europa. And he told us how much Europa has in common with Earth: seas (albeit frozen ones), a rocky interior, a magnetic core. Because of these similarities, some scientists are speculating that life might have developed in all the ferment under Europa’s ice.
But then he said any results from the radar expedition — the one that will tell us enough about Europa so that we can decide whether to send landers or even a cryobot to burrow beneath the surface — are 20 years off, assuming we get started very soon. It will take 12 years to build the orbiting device that will operate the radar, at least five years for a ship to get it to Europa, and some time to get it up and running, plus some fudge factor.
20 years just to get the basic facts. 40 or 50 years to actually go beneath the surface and see what’s there. By the time anyone figures out if there’s life on Europa, I won’t be around to see it and neither will Blankenship.
I had a sudden epiphany at that point: That’s why I’m not a scientist. I couldn’t stand working on one small piece of something for my whole life, and not ever seeing the results.
Now I’m sure there are many satisfying steps along the way. Blankenship is obviously thrilled to have figured out how to make radar work effectively to give us information on the ice, especially since when he first proposed using radar, conventional scientific wisdom in the person of a long line of scientists told him it couldn’t be done.
But to set something up and then wait 20 years before you even get to look at the data! I’m not that patient. If I were writing a novel about this, I’d just gloss over those years of set up and get to the heart of the matter: Life on Europa.
Right now I’m sitting here speculating about it. Are there little unicellular creatures, or have they become more complex, multicellular organisms? It’s a lot colder on Europa; if life has developed, I’d guess it’s comfortable in an environment that would kill us in a heartbeat unless we were very, very prepared.
Europa’s been there a long time; maybe there’s a creature more advanced than a microorganism there. Maybe they’ve evolved into fish. Hell, maybe they’re intelligent fish. Or some other kind of creature that has no Earth-based analogue. (Michael Swanwick’s story “Slow Life“, which won the 2003 Hugo, came up with very interesting life on Titan, just as an example.)
Speculation. That’s the other reason I’m not a scientist. Give me a few tiny facts — scientists see some similarities between the conditions on Earth that gave rise to life and those that exist on Europa — and there I go, making things up.
The idea of intelligent fish on Europa is starting to grow on me. Hmm.