In the next decade, NASA is projected to launch two multi-million dollar expeditions in search of life. While many scientists are vying for Europa, Jupiter’s smallest moon but home to the largest sub-surface ocean currently known to humans, Planetary Scientist Carolyn Porco believes we should instead focus on Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon. According to Ars Technica, Porco says her preference for Enceladus is not a matter of “emotional attachment,” but that “we simply know more about Enceladus.”
When scientists turned their eye towards Jupiter and its moons, they sent a probe to observe it. But that was back in the 1990s, and technology had greatly advanced by the time NASA sent a probe to Saturn in the early 2000s. While there, it studied not only the ringed-planet but many of its moons, including Enceladus. What they found is a small, ice-covered planet whose ocean is “accessible through its large geysers.” Several weeks ago, the planet was in the news because scientists discovered “organic molecules in its geyser plumes,” according to Forbes. The discovery led to the speculation that there may be life on the planet.
Porco believes this could be a possibility. In her years studying the planet, and during her observation of the results of the probe, it was confirmed that the planet’s ocean is similar to Earth’s. With the presence of the ocean, the large organic molecules, and the strong tidal forces from the planet’s proximity to Saturn, there’s a great likelihood there may be the “raw ingredients for life,” as Forbes reports.
Though NASA’s current plan is to visit Europa, Porco isn’t changing her mind.
“We just don’t know that much about Europa with certainty. There is a lot of excitement, but it’s speculation at this point. Of course I’d choose Enceladus. We know it the best, and it stands the greatest chance of making that next big step.”
Despite the push for a change of exploration, NASA’s capabilities are limited. Space travel is costly, but Porco notes that “NASA’s next mission wouldn’t have to land to look for life.” She says that since aligning into the moon’s orbit is “virtually impossible,” multiple flyovers can suffice. With the advanced materials the spaceship is likely to have, they should be able to determine the “composition of the icy particles” and a “very capable microscope might be able to detect organisms.”
Though the decision to travel to Europa has already been made, it’s possible NASA could decide to shift their focus to Enceladus instead.