April 17, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Enceladus Pumps Imagination into the Vacuum

NASA astrobiologists abandon scientific restraint in a naked push to titillate taxpayers for another vain quest to find life beyond Earth.

Saturn’s geysering moon Enceladus is interesting enough to deserve a follow-up mission some day without having to call its gas plumes “candy for microbes.” Yet when Saturn scientists went public with ordinary news about chemistry, dressing it up in astrobiological confabulation, the press went nuts – reproducing all the silliness as if on LSD (Life at Saturn Delusions). Just look at the headlines launching their perhapsimaybecouldness index into thin air like firecrackers to get the public to say “Oooo… aaaah” —

  • NASA Missions Provide New Insights into “Ocean Worlds” in Our Solar System (JPL). The press release that started it all: the chemical reaction they think is occurring underneath Enceladus “is at the root of the tree of life on Earth, and could even have been critical to the origin of life on our planet.” This was accompanied by a press briefing with Cassini scientists (see it all on YouTube).
  • Scientists discover evidence for a habitable region within Saturn’s moon Enceladus (Phys.org): “This discovery … heightens the possibility that the ocean of Enceladus could have conditions suitable for microbial life.”
  • Saturn moon ‘able to support life’ (BBC News). Jonathan Amos writes, “Saturn’s ice-crusted moon Enceladus may now be the single best place to go to look for life beyond Earth.” Note to press: Earth remains the only place in the universe where life is known to exist.
  • Cassini finds final ingredient for alien life in Enceladus’s sea (New Scientist). Leah Crane writes breathlessly, “Enceladus is ripe for life.” Only way down does she quote Chris McKay giving a slight caveat of realism: “Just because a place is suitable for life doesn’t mean that life is present, because we don’t understand the origin of life at all.” So we don’t understand life on Earth, but we imagine it forming by chance on a distant, mostly-frozen moon?
  • Potential Energy Source for Life Spotted on Saturn Moon Enceladus (Space.com). Mike Wall, a veteran hydrobioscopist, smiles after leaping from water to life: “Enceladus has liquid water, one of the key ingredients required for life as we know it.”
  • Enceladus’ Subsurface Energy Source: What It Means for Search for Life (Space.com). Calla Cofield honors astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine, not pointing out that every prediction he made about life on Titan proved false.
  • Icy Moon May Have the Right Stuff to Fuel Life (National Geographic). Michael Greshko pushes up the perhapsimaybecouldness index: “Something hot seems to be churning deep inside an icy moon, and NASA scientists think that it might be enough energy to fuel any hypothetical extraterrestrial life.”
  • Astro Update: All That Life Needs on Enceladus (NASA Astrobiology Magazine). Any surprise that the bored astrobiology community, with nothing to look at to justify their existence, gets excited getting rich with possibility thinking? Sheila E. Gifford says, “If chemical energy is life’s coin and water is life’s marketplace, there may be a swift economy alive and well beneath the icy shell of Saturn’s brightest moon.
  • Proof: Saturn moon Enceladus is able to host life – it’s time for a new mission (The Conversation). David Rothery, a Brit, lets the secret out: NASA wants Americans to dole out tax money for another mission: “For that we will need a purpose-built mission, such as the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF).”

For all we know, microbes sent to Enceladus would choke immediately or freeze to death. But who wants to spoil the fun with realism? All this way-over-the-top speculation clearly has one purpose: to get people to support the proposed “Enceladus Life Finder” (ELF) dreamt up by secular materialists who think the public will be just as jazzed by the Poof Spoof as they are. They’re safe. They don’t have to fear falsification, because any trip out there would probably arrive long after all the promoters are retired or dead. And even if ELF fails to find life, they can always say they didn’t look hard enough (as they did at Mars after Viking sent back disappointing results in 1976).

Speaking of Mars, Maggie Aderin-Pocock of University College London unveils astrobiologists’ empirical nakedness in this opening to her video clip on the BBC News: “60 years ago we thought that Mars was covered by lush vegetation. OK, and we’ve continued search for life and we haven’t found any.” So after six decades of failure, the public is supposed to invest more of their money in the losers? Here comes her new plug to the public to entice them to keep throwing money at failure: “What’s interesting in this find is that this moon, Enceladus, has the potential for life.” Interesting to whom? Clearly Maggie is interested; from her tone of voice and mannerisms, she’s all excited about the possibility of spending OPM (other people’s money) in hopes of detecting something to fill the vacuum. But lots of things have the potential for life: stars, comets, and the vacuum of space. Anything is possible when you’re speculating. The universe could be filled with Boltzmann Brains for all she knows. No doubt they love Molecular Hydrogen Candy, too.

What is this alleged “potential for life” that makes Enceladus the new star of extraterrestrial habitability? Like good public speakers, the Saturn scientists reduced their talking points to three sound bites:

  1. Molecular hydrogen (this is the “microbe candy” Aderin-Pocock grins about; microbes “eat it”.)
  2. Organics. They’re talking about carbon dioxide (CO2). It’s a stretch to call that “organic” since you breathe it out, not in.
  3. An energy source. Everything above absolute zero has energy, so it’s a matter of degree.

Lots of places in the universe could meet these criteria. Molecular clouds in the coldness of space, for instance, have molecular hydrogen, organics (carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other poisons), and energy in the form of radiation from stars and supernovas. But why stop at the level of molecules? Why not call atoms the candy of microbes? Why not discuss quarks as building blocks of life? Why not consider asteroid collisions an energy source? Carried to ridiculous extremes, this kind of reasoning could see the “potential for life” in the interiors of stars.

The Saturn astrobiologists play another card in the titillation act. Pointing to the abundant life at hydrothermal vents at Earth’s oceans, they assume that if analogous vents form under a presumptive ocean under the Enceladus ice shell, the vents will put out a welcome sign for microbes, bringing a stream of microscopic customers to the Habitability Sale. This is a false syllogism. It’s like saying, “Major premise: Iron is a requirement for skyscrapers. Minor Premise: Mars has iron. Conclusion: Mars has skyscrapers.”

No one in Big Science or Big Media seems to notice these logical fallacies. When experts like Chris McKay speak, they seem immune from criticism by reporters:

It is the definitive signal for molecular hydrogen in the plumes of Enceladus that Cassini has now confirmed.

If you were a micro-organism, hydrogen would be like candy – it’s your favourite food,” explained Dr Chris McKay, an astrobiologist with the US space agency (Nasa).

It’s very good energetically; it can support micro-organisms in grand style. Finding hydrogen is certainly a big plus; icing on the cake for the habitability argument, and a very tasty one at that.

And yet we don’t see any microbes standing in line at the Space X facility to take trips to molecular clouds in the Milky Way for lifetime supplies of free candy. McKay could test his idea with a simple experiment: bubble hydrogen into sterilized water in a test tube and count the microbes that show up, gobbling up the free candy.

The scientific paper that launched this titillation game is published in Science. And yet the paper is very restrained in its speculation. They only thing the authors say refers to some observational facts about Earth microbes – albeit with a pinch of the power of suggestion:

This state of disequilibrium is exploited by some forms of life (chemolithotrophs) as a source of chemical energy. One example is microorganisms that obtain energy by using H2 to produce CH4 from CO2 in a process called methanogenesis. Such H2-based metabolisms are used by some of the most phylogenetically ancient forms of life on Earth. On the modern Earth, geochemically derived fuels such as H2 support thriving ecosystems even in the absence of sunlight.

Their concluding sentence is also quite restrained:

This finding has implications for determining the habitability of Enceladus’ subsurface ocean, although the favorable thermodynamics alone are agnostic as to whether methanogenesis is actually occurring.

In the same issue of Science, Jeffrey S. Seewald summarizes the paper, stating only that the find represents “a chemical energy source capable of supporting life.” This kind of restraint gives the perpetrators cover. They can truthfully say ‘we never said there is life there’, all the while knowing what reporters would do with it after the highly-publicized press briefing that gushed all over about the possibility of life.

A video clip about “Ocean Worlds” at Science@NASA exhibits more empirical restraint, showing possible worlds with liquid water, but not making claims about life. It actually shows how unique Earth is because of its protective magnetic field. The text below the clip, however, engages in the same speculative leap about life like all the other press releases. None of these articles address a pressing problem: how could a tiny moon still be active after billions of years? In a sense, the talk about life is a distraction from that more empirical observation that has the potential to undermine the long ages needed to support the materialists’ origin-of-life speculations.

In other Cassini news, the tiny moon Atlas got a new portrait. New Scientist shows the saucer-shaped moon covered in fluffy material, “more subdued” than scientists had expected. “The same gravity that causes all these weird phenomena that we’re seeing on these little moons causes energy to be pumped into some of the larger ones,” says Richard Terrile, using the opportunity to push astrobiology again. “And that energy can create under-ice oceans, maybe even habitable zones.” So is gravity being added to the list of ‘building blocks of life’?

Update 4/17/17: The Hubble Space Telescope has possibly detected another vapor plume emanating from Jupiter’s moon Europa. Space.com used the opportunity to push astrobiology again: “A huge ocean of liquid water sloshes beneath Europa’s icy shell, making the 1,900-mile-wide (3,100 km) moon one of the solar system’s best bets to host alien life,” Mike Wall writes, adding, “(Many astrobiologists rank Europa and Saturn’s geyser-blasting, ocean-harboring moon Enceladus as the top two such candidates.)”

Cassini is a grand mission, a superb achievement, rich in discovery and engineering successes. The scientists and engineers who built, launched, and navigated this bus-sized craft deserve the world’s grateful respect for bringing a beautiful planet home. Tragically, the mission is being tarnished by worthless excursions from AdventureLand to FantasyLand. But it’s nothing new. It went on constantly the 14 years I was at JPL as a bit player on the Cassini team. So who got punished for trying to bring a little scientific realism into the discussion? Well, I’m not working there any more, if that’s a clue.

Titillation about life is unscientific and unnecessary. I offer a better way to interest the public in solar system exploration while maintaining scientific integrity: explain how everything we are finding in the solar system shows just how special our planet is. That would get everybody excited, even the non-materialists who constitute the majority of the public.




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  • tjguy says:

    “Just because a place is suitable for life doesn’t mean that life is present, because we don’t understand the origin of life at all.”

    Right, and if we don’t understand the origin of life at all, how do we really know that Enceladus has all the right conditions for the evolution of life?

    Answer is “We don’t.” It’s only a best guess out of the many unlikely places that we see in the universe. It’s close and semi-explorable and matches some of the conditions we know are necessary for life, but is it really habitable?

    No one knows.

    Even if it is habitable, as the OP pointed out, that doesn’t mean that life exists there. This is only wishful thinking/faith based on the assumptions/beliefs/tenets of Materialism.

  • Gary says:

    The quote from Mike Wall via space.com above is very interesting because of the last part of it: “as we know it.”

    Sure, water is one of the key ingredients for life “as we know it”, but there is only one key ingredient (that no one ever mentions) for every form of life whether known, imaginable, or unimaginable.

    What is THE key ingredient for every possible form of life?

    INFORMATION! A non-material entity generated by mind/intelligence.

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