COMMENTARY | One has to congratulate Andrew Crawford, an engineering student at Montana State University, for a little outside the box thinking. He suggests that NASA forget about going back to the moon, or Mars, or an asteroid. He favors Enceladus.
Enceladus is a moon of Saturn that is covered with water ice and features “ice volcanoes” at its south pole imaged by that Cassini space probe. It has been postulated that Enceladus has a subsurface ocean warmed by tidal forces, similar to what is thought to be on Jupiter’s moon Europa. As with Europa, some scientists speculate that these oceans might be an abode of life.
Crawford made his suggestion at a student debate that took place in Beijing at the semiannual International Astronautical Congress.
“Crawford admitted that his Beijing audience offered a cool initial reaction to exploring Enceladus, where average surface temperatures hover around minus-300 degrees Fahrenheit, according to measurements from NASA’s Cassini space probe. His pitch was based on Cassini’s findings: All that ice is evidence of water, and many believe that liquid oceans may lurk underneath the ice sheets; and the additional presence of organic compounds could make Enceladus the most likely candidate as a life-sustaining place in our solar system.
“By the time he’d finished his short presentation, during which Crawford said he again mentioned MSU’s significant contribution to a U.S. team’s groundbreaking discoveries of life in sub-glacial Lake Whillans, the audience’s opinion had significantly warmed toward favoring Enceladus. In the end, Crawford took second place among a group that included representatives from South Africa, Japan, France and China, in addition to a second representative from the U.S.”
The technical and economic challenges of an expedition to Enceladus would be immense, dwarfing anything ever before contemplated. Cassini took years just voyaging to the Saturn system. Even if exotic propulsion systems based on nuclear or fusion were to cut down that trip time, other technology to preserve a crew of astronauts in the Saturn system for months or years would also have to be developed. The cost of such an undertaking would be incalculable.
Still, Crawford should be congratulated for some outside the box thinking. Going big has a certain virtue. But persuading enough people in positions of power would be as great a challenge as actually carrying out an expedition to Enceladus.