On December 24, 2004, the spacecraft that has been orbiting Saturn—Cassini—deployed a gold, wok-shaped disc known as the Huygens probe. On January 14, 2005, that particular spacecraft was scheduled to descend to Saturn’s largest moon—Titan. The 705-pound science probe will be the first manmade object to descend to the surface of another planet’s moon. The cost for the Cassini-Huygens project was $3.27 billion dollars. Why would we spend so much money to analyze a moon from a distant planet? In a single word—life. Many scientists have abandoned past research projects to focus on a new area, astrobiology. Astrobiology—a field that has mushroomed from obscurity to the front page of the local newspaper—is the study of life in the Universe.
Bear in mind that we’ve established an entire field of science, even though life has never been found outside of the Earth. Also recognize that the surface temperature of Titan is believed to be approximately 200° below zero, which scientists acknowledge would be far too harsh to sustain life. (All life forms need liquid water, and this temperature would be too cold for that.) But speculations abound, and the push to find life “out there” continues.
Jeffrey L. Bada has provided some valuable insight as to why this search continues. Having reviewed a new book titled The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, Bada observed:
Today, it seems nearly everyone is an astrobiologist. A decade ago, I knew essentially none. Why this sudden obsession with a field that encompasses so many diverse areas in both the physical and life sciences? So far, life has not been found to exist away from Earth, although the surge in interest in astrobiology suggests there is intense optimism within at least parts of the science community that this singularity will change in the future. But scientific curiosity alone likely cannot explain the explosive growth of astrobiology. After reading The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, I came to the conclusion that one of the field’s attractions was money—and lots of it (2005, 307:46, emp. added).
A case in point? The Huygen’s probe. We often are asked why scientists continue pursuing research that is known to be false (e.g., evolution). Bada’s conclusion sums it up: “Money—and lots of it.”
Bada, Jeffrey L. (2005), “A Field With a Life of Its Own,” Science, 307:46, January 7.
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