Also: want to name a moon? |

Dear readers,

I was thrown into the deep end at TIME magazine fast. It was in 1996 that I began my long and ongoing run at TIME, and I was more than a little nervous. Having spent my career at monthly magazines, I was concerned about how well I'd keep pace at a weekly, but I consoled myself that I wouldn't be covering, say, politics or international news—which can break day to day and hour to hour. I'd be covering science, which moves more slowly. I mean, it wasn't like NASA would discover life on Mars my first day on the job.

I was right: they discovered it on my third day. On Aug. 7, 1996, the space agency called a news conference to announce that the Martian meteorite known as ALH 84001, found in Antarctica, contained structures that appeared to be micro-fossils of long dead life. The announcement was so momentous that President Bill Clinton followed it with a news conference in the White House Rose Garden.

"If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered," Clinton said. "Its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined."

TIME

He was right. It's implications were and are huge. And the reaction of the public, whose very sense of the universe and humanity's place in it had potentially been upended forever was...nothing much. Even before later examinations of the rock called the findings into question, the Day One story barely had a Day Two. The evening news shows covered it, the morning papers ran with it, and that was it. At the end of the week, TIME's editors decided that the cover of the next issue would be a story about Senator Bob Dole's announcement of former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp as his running mate for the 1996 presidential election. The Mars rock got a corner flap.

In 2020, both NASA and the European Space Agency will launch rovers to Mars that, unlike previous machines that have looked only for conditions that can or could once have supported biology, will actually be looking for extant or past life, most likely microbial. So the great answer to the eternal question could be in hand in the next year or two.

The Telegraph, in the U.K., published a thoughtful piece about whether humanity is ready for that existential earthquake, quoting Jim Green, the director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, who very much thinks we're not. “It will be revolutionary,” he said. “It’s like when Copernicus stated ‘no we go around the Sun’. Completely revolutionary. It will start a whole new line of thinking. I don’t think we’re prepared for the results. We’re not."

There is reason to think—and to worry—that he's right. We're a fearful, primal, circle-the-wagons species. Consider the current nationalist, anti-immigrant frenzy. If living beings from other countries make us nuts, what about ones from off the planet entirely?

And yet we might surprise ourselves. Astronomer Seth Shostak, senior astronomer with the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, published a piece on MACH, an NBC science and tech site, talking Green down from the ceiling. Citing the 1996 experience, he wrote, "This was a huge story, but the public’s reaction was as calm as the dawn. Folks just wanted to know more." He expects something similar if the rovers find evidence of extinct, fossilized Martian life.

That said, Shostak does believe we're not prepared—for practical reasons involving how we make sure our explorations of Mars don't contaminate an alien ecosystem. "What would we do?" he asks. "Would someone tell Elon Musk to put his planned excursions to Mars on hold because the planet has an indigenous population?"

In any case, we might do ourselves credit, and react to life on Mars not with terror or ecological exploitation, but with joy and wonder and an almost-childlike delight. On December 9, 1906, The New York Times published what might have been the most delightful article that has ever appeared on its pages in its entire 168-year history.

New York Times

Under the absolutely earnest headline "There Is Life On The Planet Mars," the paper of record reported astronomer Percival Lowell's findings that the planet was criss-crossed by canals which could only have been engineered by an intelligent species, channeling water from its ice caps to its dry mid-latitudes. The canals, the paper wrote, "are an unanswerable argument for the existence of conscious, intelligent life. A thing made predicates a maker."

That's true, but the maker in this case was Lowell himself, whose flawed eye and wishful bias made him see what was not there. Still, the news was big enough that it filled most of an entire page. Tellingly however, it wasn't the front page; it was buried inside the paper, in a feature section, where happy, feel-good news was covered, as opposed to the more serious affairs of state that earned the front page. Perhaps, if either of the new Mars rovers proves the 1906 headline correct, our reaction can combine two eras: the Rose Garden gravity of 1996, and the amused delight of 1906. That might do more than anything to make us an Earthly species worthy of at last meeting an unearthly one.

—Jeffrey Kluger


IMAGE OF THE WEEK
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Kevin M. Gill, © CC BY 3.0

Jupiter's volcanically active moon Io casts its shadow on the planet in this dramatic image from NASA's Juno spacecraft. As with solar eclipses on the Earth, within the dark circle racing across Jupiter's cloud tops one would witness a full solar eclipse as Io passes in front of the Sun.


WHAT WE’RE READING

And speaking of life

Plenty of people can't pronounce Enceladus (for the record, it's en-SEL-a-dus), but we all may be talking about the Saturnian moon soon. It was long known that Enceladus was in some respects a cosmic snowball—a world covered in water ice like Jupiter's Europa. Thanks to the Cassini probe, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017, astronomers discovered that Enceladus periodically blasts frosty plumes of salty water into space. Liquid water and salt are powerful indicators of an environment that could, in theory, support life, and now there's more evidence for that possibility: NASA just announced that analyses of Cassini data have revealed that organic compounds essential to the formation of amino acids are mixed in with the water plumes—principally nitrogen and oxygen compounds that serve as organic building blocks. That, again, is only an indicator: it's not the same as actual amino acids, which themselves would not be the same as life. But each discovery brings closer the possibility that something could be stirring in the waters of Enceladus.

This is why we need people on Mars

It's hard to fix a machine when the person with the know-how and the tools is 243 million miles away—and that's a problem for the Mars InSight lander. The spacecraft, which landed on Mars in 2018, is equipped with a heat probe meant to be hammered 16 feet into the surface, but it's gotten stuck just 14 inches deep, with the probe simple bouncing in place with every hammer blow. A human with a hammer could just, you know, hit harder. But for now, the best NASA can do is use the spacecraft's scoop to apply pressure to the side of the probe, pushing it against the side of the hole that's been dug so far, which could provide enough friction to stop it from bouncing. This isn't the first time NASA has faced a simple problem that became devilishly difficult when handled from afar before. The Galileo Jupiter probe, launched in 1989, relied on a high-gain antenna that was supposed to open like an umbrella. One of the ribs got stuck, however, almost scuttling the mission until engineers found a way to send data back through a much smaller low-gain antenna. That worked, but it hobbled the mission for much of its 14 years. A person would have been able to flick the rib free with little more than a finger.

Mini-moon race

With five countries and the European Space Agency already having gotten spacecraft into orbit around the moon, three (the U.S., the USSR and China) having soft landed there and one (guess who!) having landed astronauts, a couple of modest little spacecraft making modest little landings should not amount to much. But they do. In 2021, two different landers will head to the moon, both built by private companies flying aboard private rockets, as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, designed to augment the Artemis program, which is aiming to have astronauts back on the moon by 2024. CLPS is intended to outsource and privatize cargo delivery to the lunar surface, following the model now being used successfully to resupply the International Space Station. The 2024 lunar goal may well (probably will) turn out to be too ambitious, but the relative speed with which CLPS is moving does make it more plausible. A moon base needs cargo, and the necessary delivery services might soon be flying.

No. Don't do that. Just don't

Look away vegans, but there's meat on the menu on the International Space Station. OK, there's always been meat on the menu on the ISS—but it was flown there, not grown there. Now that's changed. Bloomberg reports on an Israeli startup, Aleph Farms, that launched an experiment to the station that produced a small scrap of tissue 3D-printed meat from bovine cells. The company calls the experiment a proof-of-concept exercise, and says that the hope is that the system could one day produce protein on-site, sparing the animals and providing nutrition for astronauts. That's a worthy goal. Regrettably, the picture in the Bloomberg story of what Aleph has produced so far—admittedly little more than a cluster of starter cells so far—does not exactly scream "chow time!" Call me when they've got a burger.

Greatest car factory ever

There's no assembly plant like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's clean-rooms, where spacecraft bound for other worlds are hand-built and tested over the course of years. The technicians who work there dress in surgical bunny suits, masks and hair covers, and operate in a positive-pressure environment in which air can escape the room, but not flow in—thus minimizing exterior dust. In a brief series of just-released, stop-action images, NASA shared a quick moment in a straightforward test in which the descent stage of the Mars 2020 spacecraft separates from the rover itself, as it will have to do during landing. It couldn't look simpler in the JL clean-room—and it couldn't be harder over the Martian surface.


WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU

Last week we asked you what you thought was the greatest American space machine ever built. Here's how you voted:

Just a few days ago, the Carnegie Institution for Science announced the discovery of 20 new moons orbiting Saturn—and there's a contest to name them. We wanted you, our readers, to help us choose the official TIME magazine submission to the contest. The moons of Saturn are grouped into categories, each with their own naming convention; we've decided to focus on finding a new name for the Inuit group, which are named for giants from the mythology of the Inuit people of northern Canada and parts of Greenland and Alaska.

1) Nanurluk, a giant polar bear

2) Kinak, a giant who saves a woman from her abusive husband

3) Sedna, the Goddess of the seas

4) Pukimna, the Caribou Mother

Let us know via email at space@time.com!


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME magazine, and the author of 10 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8 and two novels for young adults. Follow him at @jeffreykluger.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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