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EDITORIAL: Is there life after Cassini? Let’s find out

NASA's Director of Planetary Science Jim Green attends a Wednesday news conference at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as NASA's Cassini spacecraft nears the end of its 20-year mission. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Go look for life, NASA.

The space probe Cassini, which will burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere on Friday, discovered that two of the planet’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, unexpectedly have environments that could nurture life. Cassini, launched 20 years ago, didn’t have the right equipment aboard to establish for sure the presence of life, but a successor spacecraft could. Let’s build that successor without delay.


Whether there is life elsewhere in the universe is one of the great unanswered questions of humankind. Now, an answer may be tantalizingly close, not only in terms of distance, but also of time. It is possible that we who are alive today could know.

It turns out Titan has seas of methane and ethane, and perhaps an ocean of water under its surface. Perhaps a form of microbial life that depends on liquid hydrocarbons instead of water is splashing around in the liquid methane. Or water-based life might have taken up residence beneath Titan’s frigid surface.

Enceladus, meanwhile, spouts geysers of water vapor and organic material from what might be a watery ocean beneath its icy surface. Hot hydrothermal vents in that ocean might provide the energy for life, just as they do in Earth’s deeps.

We really want to know. It would profoundly alter our sense of our place in the universe.

NASA is pondering a follow-up mission to Saturn that might include a robotic submarine or a drone capable of exploring the moons. The space agency is expected to finalize a mission plan in 2019.

We say, don’t delay. Get right back up there.

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