Beyond Mars: Space exploration should focus on icy moons

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Mars is exciting — so exciting that it is taking all of my willpower to write this article without slipping into a coma.

Forty-six years ago, Mars was thought to harbor Martians.

Martians are exciting.

Several days ago, NASA revealed breaking news that the “Woman on Mars,” (a widely circulating image sent back from the latest Mars explorer that looks like a naked woman, or Bigfoot, or both) is not a Martian. It is a rock formation. The image does show, however, that the surface of Mars is still red. This is exciting (and relieving!), because Mars could have turned zucchini green since the last time we saw it.

Every year, NASA budgets millions of dollars toward the exploration of a planet that is barren and lifeless (and boring). Mars captivated the public’s imagination in its glory days, when Viking 1 captured a picture of Cydonia Mensae, a region of Mars that looked remarkably like a human face. “The Face on Mars” sparked a public frenzy about space civilizations, space travel, and aliens.

That was 1976.

Since then, 16 Mars missions have revealed more or less the same thing: Mars is dead. Still, Mars continues to dominate the media. Mainstream news articles on planetary science flip-flop between two topics: intriguing potential findings of water and semi-earth-like atmospheres on extrasolar planets (like HD209458b, which is a nightmare to pronounce and hundreds of light-years away, but fascinating nonetheless) — and Mars.

Given the media’s misrepresentation of the universe (and NASA’s countless expeditions in Mars’ name), it’s no wonder that we, the public, feel obligated to care about Mars. Turning one’s back on Mars has become tantamount to shunning space exploration altogether. In erudite circles, a public renunciation of Mars deems you a neophyte, an uneducated simpleton that doesn’t care about sweeping metaphysical questions like where we came from, and whether life exists on other planets.

I proudly include myself in this category of ne’er-do-wellers, because I do not care about Mars. Bodies with deep hydrothermal vents, spectacular subsurface oceans, and violent volcanoes — bodies touted again and again by scientists as having the highest potential for extraterrestrial life — exist in our own backyard.

They deserve some attention.

Somewhere in the universe, there is a loud crack. A hydrothermal plume has just exploded from an ocean 200 kilometers deep and bubbled its way up to greet a thick sheet of ice. The sheet writhes and melts as the pressure from the rising diapir (in geology, a swelling caused by shifts beneath the surface) melts away portions of its underbelly. The upwelling plume struggles to break through the ice, but the sheet is too thick. The plume bubbles once more before subsiding back to the ocean floor. It will erupt again. Europa, Jupiter’s sixth moon, is restless.

Europa’s subsurface ocean, a potential bastion of extraterrestrial life, is one of the best-kept secrets in our solar system. Still, the media continue to point their lenses at Mars, and this spectacular satellite goes largely unnoticed.

Nearby, Ganymede — Jupiter’s largest moon — is awoken by the disturbance. The visually arresting Ganymede lumbers behind Europa, making the two satellites frequently criss-crossing neighbors. Ganymede’s surface is pockmarked and striated. The striations are the potential grumblings of a salty, subsurface ocean. A simulated flyover of Ganymede reveals Arbela Sulcus, a groove that dramatically slices through Ganymede, indicating water movement below.

There have been initiatives to explore Jupiter’s satellites. The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, for example, was proposed to explore these moons in greater detail, although a change in priorities at NASA to manned-missions (Mars was, no doubt, on the bill) caused the project to lose funding in 2005. Another project, the Europa IcePick Ocean Explorer, was a grassroots scientific effort spearheaded by Larry Klaes, of the Columbus Optical SETI Observatory, to build a hydrobot to penetrate Europa’s ice crust and explore the ocean below. The project lost steam, due in part to a lack of public awareness.

Traveling from Jupiter to Saturn yields another treasure. Titan, Saturn’s 12th and largest moon, is so rich in organic compounds that it is one of the frontrunners in the search for microbial life in the universe. It is also heavily looked at to answer questions about prebiotic chemistry, such as the origins of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA) and proteins. The conditions on Titan are almost identical to the conditions on early Earth — conditions that eventually gave rise to life. As expected, Titan receives paltry funding when compared to Mars and is largely ignored by the mainstream media.

Mars will forever be responsible for ushering a wave of enthusiasm and awareness about astrobiology, astrochemistry, and the possibility of life on other planets — and for that, it warrants a well-deserved place in the public’s fancy. But for all its merits, NASA’s outright shunning of Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and most recently Saturn’s sixth moon Enceladus — whose Europa-like geology is quietly generating excitement — is irresponsible. The public deserves to know that Mars is not the most interesting body in our solar system. And at that point, the public may also discern what is the more important endeavor for mankind: throwing money at a dead planet in the hopes of one day colonizing it, or discovering untold secrets about ourselves and the universe by looking for life where it most likely exists — the icy moons.