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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 21st year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Mars or Europa?

7 March 2013

Mankind has spent a lot of time sending spacecraft to orbit, land on and roam about the surface of -- Mars.

As a result of all this activity, we've learned an awful lot about the red planet but ask anyone involved and they'll surely tell you that they have barely scratched the surface (so to speak).

There are now privately funded proposals to send a couple of folk on a "flyby" of Mars, in anticipation of a future manned landing -- but is this the most sensible "next step" in our exploration of the solar system?

The reason I ask is because, despite a few false alarms, the prospects of actually finding any life on Mars remains fairly remote. We're also unlikely to find anything we can use here on Earth -- the transport costs making even massive deposits of gold or platinum uneconomic to recover.

Europa however, is a different story.

For some time, scientists have believed that Jupiter's largest moon is perhaps the most viable habitat for life beyond the confines of planet earth.

A vast subterranean ocean might well be a perfect environment for simple, and more complex forms of life to appear, evolve and thrive -- just as it has on the seas of Earth.

Although sheathed in a layer of thick ice, the depths (up to 10KM) of Europa's ocean might also be warmed by a number of mechanisms, although direct sunlight is not expected to be one of them.

Preliminary plans for probes to Europa have already been discussed by NASA and these, it is anticipated, would carve a path through the ice sheet before entering the watery world beneath.

So, given that any trip to Europa or Mars will be powered largely by gravitational slingshot effects, the costs involved ought not be too different -- despite the vastly greater distance of the Jovian moon. With this in mind, which would be the more valuable trip?

Does it make sense to risk human life in a trip that will likely do little more than prove that humans can survive more than a year in the void of interplanetary space when, for the same money, we may well be able to find the first traces of life elsewhere in the solar system?

My money would be on the trip to Europa -- although I can see that perhaps not everyone would be comfortable with such a mission.

Would discovering life, even simple single-celled creatures, on another celestial body be too frightening for some to contemplate? Might it shake the foundations of some religions in a way that could significantly weaken some of those pseudo-political organisations?

Or would it reinvigorate the whole space program in a way that hasn't been seen since the 1960's and man's attempts to plant a foot on the moon?

I'm picking it would be the latter and like to think that the discovery of life on Europa might act as a unifying force -- bringing all the world together, once we realise that, for all our differences, we are united as the people of Earth -- in a universe filled with a potentially limitless number of other peoples on countless other planets or moons.

Mars or Europa? Where do you think we ought to spend the money looking for life?

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