Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Trip to a Far Away Moon…

Dear Friends,

1,216 billion kilometers, about a billion miles away from the pale blue dot that is our home-world, is a very small world that we humans call Enceladus. It is a moon of Saturn, and it circles and swims amidst the most dense portion of the gaseous, ringed and giant planet’s E-ring. Enceladus is so tiny that its entire diameter could be nestled in the distance between Montreal and Washington, D.C.
Something interesting is happening out there. On a patch of dust where ice serves as the fifty-mile thick rocky mantle and crust of a deep frozen speck of creation, there are geysers. How can this be? Perhaps, we thought, under that frigid presentation to early robots visiting from Earth, there is an ocean. The founts that emerge from this world’s surface are rich in water and the chemicals sodium and potassium. Nitrogen makes up a good portion of the ice that cloaks the roiling, hidden ocean that is bubbling in the massage of Saturn’s titanic gravity. Beneath that ocean lies a core of iron, silicates, and carbon. On Eceladus there is the chemistry of life.
We wonder, what sort of life might be bubbling in that dark ocean that has never seen even the dim light of a distant sun? The clever machine, Aldrin II, completed its seven year voyage to the Saturnian system in 2028. It threaded its way through the debris of the great rings to orbit Enceladus and then descended to its surface. There it deployed Aldrin’s cryobot, Armstrong. It took six months (in Earth time) to bore down to the ocean through the mantle of ice. Eventually, however, there the great question was answered; at least in part.
The briny deep was a soup of pre-biotic and biotic materials, detectable to the robot’s “senses.” Amino acids complexed into RNA, DNA and proteins, flakes of what could have passed for earthly flesh and weird bits of what seemed to be vegetation but contained no chlorophyl were abundant near the ocean floor where sulfurous fumaroles vomited out the substances of the ancient world’s core. Peering into the murk, Armstrong detected in this exobiology what appeared, at first, to be bacteria to any doctor born of our terran orb. On closer examination, this first judgement was precisely wrong.
The bugs of Enceladus were all inside out. Exterior to their lipid cellular membranes was their genetic material. It makes sense that nature might direct such an evolution. In a cozy but constrained womb such as this weird ocean, evolution had opted to make the exchange of genes as convenient and speedy as possible. Higher up the food chain were similarly constructed creatures. Their bodies had the appearance of flattened eels that squiggled through the waters. Their guts secreted their gastric juices through a slimy skin that was covered with long cilia that captured their digested food and swept it into pores and thence, apparently to an alimentary canal that had no mouth but the being’s surface. It did, however have an anus, from whence the rich broth of the Enceladan biosphere was, in part, derived.
There was more. That plant like detritus was revealed to be the dissolved remains of plankton-like beings that had evolved to bio-fluoresce to signal each other in the otherwise impenetrable darkness of their home in an encapsulated deep. With this talent they gained the ability to form jelly-fish-like colonies, massive creatures that captured and consumed the eel-creatures. They lived on top of the alien food-chain, died and just fell to pieces.
Twenty years after his arrival in the alien deep, Armstrong still swims this strange ocean. It continues to report back. Alas, almost nobody is listening but kids who are strange, have never kissed a girl, and have time on their hands. The governments of The Allies have cut back budgets for space exploration. There are wars to pay for. Meanwhile, the people of our gloom benighted orb may yet hear news of a species that might want to speak to us through a piece of our technology made from junk made from stuff we dug from this Earth, and flung toward the stars.
Hic Finis Est,