October 6, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

NASA to Fly Owls to Look for Elvis

Is an experiment a waste of time if it has almost zero possibility
of success? Perhaps, but the spinoffs can be useful


NASA lives by acronyms. Let’s clear up the headline before the National Enquirer gets all excited:

OWLS: Oceans Worlds Life Surveyor. “OWLS is designed to ingest and analyze liquid samples. It features eight instruments – all automated – that, in a lab on Earth, would require the work of several dozen people.”

OCEANS: Organic Capillary Electrophoresis Analysis System. This instrument system “essentially pressure-cooks liquid samples and feeds them to instruments that search for the chemical building blocks of life: all varieties of amino acids, as well as fatty acids and organic compounds.”

ELVIS: Extant Life Volumetric Imaging System. It’s a microscope system with no moving parts for use in space. It “uses machine-learning algorithms to both home in on lifelike movement and detect objects lit up by fluorescent molecules, whether naturally occurring in living organisms or as added dyes bound to parts of cells.”

Now that the tabloids have calmed down and walked away with “no comprendo” expressions on their faces, on to the story.

The wizards at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have used their intelligent design skill to build these systems to look for evidence that life can emerge by sheer dumb luck. This can only mean one thing: it must be funding season again.

NASA believes the public will clamor for more support for the agency if they can maintain a sufficient level of titillation in their imaginations about life in outer space. It’s a proven tactic, because one can never prove a universal negative. If they don’t find life at Saturn’s little geyser moon Enceladus—for which these instruments have been designed—they can seek more funds to look more closely at Europa, or at Pluto, or at one of many detected exoplanets around thousands of stars. They can even go back to previously searched locations, like Mars, claiming that they didn’t look hard enough last time.

What keeps the search going is a trait shared by most materialists known as hydrobioscopy, a term from our Darwin Dictionary, that is defined as “the tendency to focus on the possibility of life whenever water is found on another planet or moon.” This prompts NASA to engage in a “Follow the Water” strategy. Since life needs water, places that contain water (even in ice form) are the best places to look. A hunter on Earth might set his scope on watering holes, for example. But hydrobioscopy in space commits a fallacy: the idea that since water is necessary for life, it is sufficient for life. This is not to say that materialists believe life consists only of water, but since water is a good solvent, it will dissolve any minerals a hopeful protocell will need in its quest to self-organize and emerge to say “Howdy!” to OWLS and ELVIS.

JPL Developing More Tools to Help Search for Life in Deep Space (NASA-JPL, 6 Oct 2022). Fly OWLS; fly!

Are we alone in the universe? An answer to that age-old question has seemed tantalizingly within reach since the discovery of ice-encrusted moons in our solar system with potentially habitable subsurface oceans. But looking for evidence of life in a frigid sea hundreds of millions of miles away poses tremendous challenges. The science equipment used must be exquisitely complex yet capable of withstanding intense radiation and cryogenic temperatures. What’s more, the instruments must be able to take diverse, independent, complementary measurements that together could produce scientifically defensible proof of life.

To address some of the difficulties that future life-detection missions might encounter, a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California has developed OWLS, a powerful suite of science instruments unlike any other.

The quest for extraterrestrial life is not a waste of time; creationists (like Kepler) and evolutionists (like Sagan), as well as countless stargazers, have been pondering it for centuries. There’s nothing like data to help provide answers. And JPL’s determination to offer “scientifically defensible proof” of life is commendable. Questions do arise, however, about how best to use public money and where is best to look. Why Enceladus, if there is only water ice detected coming out of its geyser vents?

The life we know on Earth has numerous requirements: a narrow range of temperatures that allow for metabolic reactions, a stable environment, and some 19 chemical elements for the simplest known microbes. Complex eukaryotic life employs additional elements. Origin-of-life researchers of all persuasions know of three requirements for the simplest theoretical microbe:

  1. a container or membrane that can separate required ingredients from the environment and perform active transport
  2. a metabolic system that can convert chemical energy to functional work
  3. a genetic system that can store and pass on functional information to descendants

Proteins are coded by triplet codons of DNA “letters” A, C, T, and G. (Illustra Media)

It’s that last requirement—information—that is often overlooked by astrobiologists (Evolution News). In all life as we know it, information is stored in sequences of DNA “letters” that are transcribed and translated into proteins that perform the metabolic work. The information content of these systems is enormously high. Astrobiologists often get excited by the molecules they sometimes find in “prebiotic” environments, but have no answer for the source of the information needed. Where at Enceladus, or at Europa, or on Mars, is a source of information? Our online book (see ch. 6) shows how exceedingly improbable it is to get a single usable protein by chance (see also this short film from Illustra Media), even if the molecules are available. Information knows how to put molecules together, like words on a page, to produce meaning.

Tiny Enceladus orbits outside Saturn's rings

Enceladus (the small dot near the edge-on rings, right) is a tiny moon around Saturn that is surprisingly active. It has water ice, but no source of information for life.

Useless Snipe Hunting?

Dr Michael Behe used the analogy of a snipe hunt in a recent article at World Magazine (22 Sept 2022) to express the futility of expecting material processes to produce even one of the molecular machines required for life, like ATP synthase. And yet this is what the JPL scientists are embarked on: an impossibly vain effort to hunt for life that they believe must have organized itself without intelligent design. Raw materials lack the informational resources to organize themselves into complex, functional systems. Will the presence of iron emerge into skyscrapers without architects possessing creativity, engineers possessing foresight and know-how, and a host of specialized workers with the skill to follow a plan? It seems hopeless, a waste of time and money.

But all is not lost, even on a snipe hunt. Suppose that the snipe hunters get creative, and have a lot of education in engineering and strategy. If they come up with new technologies to find the snipe, there will be spinoffs from the technologies. They may never find the mythical bird, but the systems they design might be repurposed for practical ends in medicine, military surveillance, home appliances and much more. The motivation to push the limits of technology to make instruments able to operate in extreme environments in space will advance science. That’s a good thing. Maybe astrobiology, though, is not the only way to do it.

Be wise, JPL: use OWLS to help humanity.





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