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Europa, Ganymede eclipse the Moon in space exploration race

Thursday, 18 March 2010 — by

The time of arrogant patriotism, harking back to a time of cold wars in low earth orbit, and an ego-centric (and a US-centric) view of the universe is long gone. Jupiter and the moons of Europa and Ganymede beckon. There’s serious science to be done, staring an international cast…

Oceans inside Europa and Ganymede

Europa, a moon of the planet Jupiter

Out there, in the Jovian system, Europa and Ganymede beckon with a wanton glow in the cold ink black of space Two moons that hold deep below their treacherous cold surfaces great promise. A promise of life, or at the very least, a hint of a life less ordinary. That said, life is far from ordinary here on Earth.

Europa is of special interest because deep under the crushing, irradiated mass of shifting ices an unfathomable, vast ocean lays waiting. Water has unusual properties, one of which is to shield against the deadening, clasping fingers of radiation reaching out from Jupiter’s colossal magnetosphere.

Life, by Jove

Ganymede, a moon of the planet Jupiter

Under all of that ice, in those imagined pitch black waters, down in the impenetrable ocean depths, there’s a surface, perhaps much like that of our Earth. And at that ocean floor, we can imagine “deep sea smokers”, those mineralized columns, belching forth a superheated soup of carbon-rich chemicals. The same conditions that allow for life to exist in the absence of light and the presence of chemicals alone — not photosynthetic life, but chemosynthetic.

The prospect of there being alien life out there, within the close confines our own solar system is just too tempting an offer to pass up. Titan hints at an early Earth, one shrouded in as much mystery as it is clouds of combustible gases.

And that prospect became massively more credible recently when NASA discovered life 189 metres below Antarctic ice, at depth, under such conditions and at a place on Earth few would have imagined life to persist, let alone thrive.

There is much science to be done, to help answer the greatest question of them all: “Are we alone in the universe?” We might not have a conclusive answer to that question in our lifetimes, but we have the means to mount a creditable and credible case. However, politics and pride hanker for pride of place. But they are not welcome.

A new Moon shot is lunacy

Earth's moon

“I think America has a responsibility to maintain its leadership in technology and its moral leadership … to seek knowledge. Curiosity’s the essence of human existence.”

So says Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13. America has a responsibility to get its house in order, and revisiting the Moon for the sake of pride is as naive as it is foolish.

At a time of planet-sized debts, trade deficit black holes and a decentralization of knowledge, shifting away from those familiar orbits of the US and Britain, the go-it-alone unilateralism of the past is no longer viable, with the International Space Station being the physical embodiment of that change in policy.

And to claim that a manned mission to the Moon will “never happen again” is just as naive as it is scare-mongering. As much respect as I have for these guys and what they achieved, I have to question the motives of Lovell and Cernan here. These comments are imprecise and, to me at least, their timing hints at political motivations.

The US doesn’t have a technological leadership anymore. And as for a moral leadership, well, stand up the nation that claims to be the bastion of morality and towering edifice of ethics and I’ll show you a land of liars.

As a destination, our Moon may well as be a distant star because it’s not on the scientific radar…

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