“Fools” (VSS V)

A set of very short fiction pieces that I originally wrote for Twitter.

“Listen, I need this insurance money, now will you help me or not?”

Brian looked at Rob and back at the car. The river beyond was dark and eerily silent.

“I’ve already reported the thing stolen. Please!”

Brian sighed and nodded just before several thuds emanated from the trunk.

Continue reading ““Fools” (VSS V)”

“Results May Very” (VSS II)

A set of very short fiction pieces that I originally wrote for Twitter.

Their teacher returned after much gossip and speculation.

He was alive. And somehow younger.

“What happened?” 

“Divorce and a sabbatical.”

Continue reading ““Results May Very” (VSS II)”

“Grinding, Screaming, Splashing”

After traveling over 625 million kilometers to Europa, he did hope to eventually have the opportunity to step out onto the ice.

After the crew carefully removed the necessary equipment, Jackson remained inside the module. Only three were needed to operate the drill, allowing the biologist to prepare the module for any samples retrieved from the ice.

Continue reading ““Grinding, Screaming, Splashing””

#SciFiFri and #SciFiSat Selections

Selections from my Twitter (@jojascully) for #SciFiFri and #SciFiSat!

“Good morning. You are present today to discuss a classified mission. You’ve heard rumors of a ‘black knight satellite’. These aren’t rumors.”

“What?”

“This object appears to be Voyager 1 – Voyager 1 from some point in the future.”

“Awesome!”

“No. I wouldn’t say that.”

#ScifiFri Continue reading “#SciFiFri and #SciFiSat Selections”

Speculative 66: Issues 6, 7, and 8

Nine speculative fiction pieces from Speculative 66!

Speculative 66 is an online magazine featuring works of fiction that are exactly 66 words. I was fortunate enough to have a few pieces appear in this publication beginning in issue six and continuing until issue nineteen.  Continue reading “Speculative 66: Issues 6, 7, and 8”

You and I – we go way back.

Extraterrestrial life, if found, is expected to be strange and astounding. But what if the feeling we experience following this amazing discovery isn’t excitement, wonder, or even fear – but one of déjà vu?

When I was a kid, one of the more thoroughly enjoyable films that my cousin, sister, and I frequently watched was Planet of Dinosaurs. This movie has something of a cult following today and the title really says all that you need to know. Of course, you don’t need to recreate dinosaurs in a laboratory if there’s a planet teeming with these beasts close enough for us to take a spaceship (packed with really snappy space outfits) and arrive in a relatively short period of time.  

Set well into the future, the crew of a disabled spaceship crash-lands on a distant planet remarkably similar to Earth. Much to the dismay of the survivors, this planet, determined to be younger than Earth, is inhabited by dinosaurs (or, at least, creatures that really, really resemble dinosaurs). Some of the dinosaurs are less than hospitable to the newcomers and, ultimately, the human characters are forced to get really creative to dispatch the local Tyrannosaurus (this Tyrannosaurus was made out of clay). I really shouldn’t make joke of that – this film won the 1980 Saturn Award for “Best Film Produced under $1,000,000”. Special recognition was given to the films stop motion effects, which heavily involved the use of clay models.

This seemed to be almost ideal for me. As a child, I loved dinosaurs (I still do) and would have loved to travel the galaxy to see the sights (I still would) – especially if there were dinosaurs out there (please let there be)!

Of course, I spent the next two decades of my life hearing that extraterrestrial life would almost definitely not consist of dinosaurs. Or giant bugs. Or little green men. Or even little grey men. A countless number of researchers and scientists have offered a similar reality: we can’t possibly begin to imagine the shapes and forms extraterrestrial life might assume. There have also been plenty of suggestions from the scientific community that extraterrestrial life may be unrecognizable as life to mankind.

Then Planet of Dinosaurs came roaring back. A recent study suggested that Earth may have been seeded with life by a meteorite billions of years ago. This meteorite would have brought the chemical building blocks for all life that has ever existed (sans perhaps just a few bacteria) on Earth. Where there was one meteorite, there may be been two, or a dozen, or a hundred. Planets across the Milky Way could have been seeded with the same amino acids and sugars. If the mixture occurred elsewhere in just the right way, however unlikely, there could be dinosaur-like creatures roaming around on a planet in a nearby star system.

Although the dinosaur part really appeals to me in a nostalgic way, that’s not what is worthwhile to me about this study. When I first read this (and later, similar, research), my initial thought was “if there is life nearby, maybe it’s a little more similar to us than expected.”

This goes a step farther. Earth, having life genuinely created here or seeded from the cosmos, could have, in turn, spread the proper organic necessities to some very close neighbors. There is a term for this possibility: lithopanspermia. Rocks harboring microscopic life from the Earth could have been ejected by meteor strikes into space eons ago. These rocks may have subsequently struck other bodies in our solar system. Lithopanspermia, of course, remains unproven as a means of spreading life from one planetary body to another. There is no firm evidence that microorganisms could survive a journey through space.

However, a study from Pennsylvania State University has demonstrated that, over the last three billion years or so, somewhere between one and ten rocks ejected from the Earth has struck Europa. Europa, one of Juptier’s moons, is the favorite darling of those believing extraterrestrial life may be found somewhere in our solar system.

Blacksmoker_in_Atlantic_Ocean
Deep-sea vents may have been a sanctuary for early life on Earth.

Imagine now a rock (or rocks) from Earth, carrying early indigenous (and very simple) life forms, smashing through the ice on Europa and plunging downward in the massive ocean dominating that moon. A popular theory holds that life originated on Earth near deep-sea vents that seeped valuable mineral content and heat into the ocean. Such vents are also believed to exist on Europa. Our Earth microbes survive their hypothetical space journey and settle to the bottom of Europa, introducing life to this new world and continuing their evolution – perhaps with a subtle twist or two.

This serves as a critical plot point in Dying Up There. Set several decades in the future, the protagonist, Mark Helling, is a crew member of the first human expedition to Europa. The search for extraterrestrial life has ended, but this meeting isn’t a discovery as much as it’s a reunion. What Helling and his companions encounter might seem strange, but there’s a discomforting familiarity present. After all, the human characters and this newfound entity are made of the same stuff – each have origins in the same primordial soup found on Earth eons ago. Both grew apart over the eons, but they go way back – for better or worse.

How will extraterrestrial life look if such is found? I am still caught up in the idea of “alien dinosaurs“. Are those out there somewhere or what? 

Come on in, the water’s fine!

There are a handful of moons in our solar system that may be an abode for extraterrestrial life. After comparison, which of the candidates makes the strongest case?

During the course of my career as an educator, I’ve tried to create a wide variety of opportunities for my students to earn extra credit. Some of these activities have undoubtedly been more popular than others, and a few were especially well received.

About two years ago, I came up with a relatively simple task for my students to perform over a weekend near the end of the school year. Any student successfully completing the optional assignment by the following Monday would receive a handful of bonus points for that grading period.

I put this list of traditionally female names on my chalkboard:

  • Ariel
  • Bianca
  • Juliet
  • Larissa
  • Margaret
  • Miranda
  • Phoebe
  • Rhea
  • Rosalind

Students were permitted to copy the list. Along with the list, students were posed with this question to answer:

What is this a list of?

Throughout the course of the day, which included six classes, a few students wanted to offer a guess or two right away. Feeling confident that no student would immediately know the answer, I allowed for a few guesses to be taken at the end of each class.

“A list of Disney characters?”

This guess was actually made several times throughout the day. Although not the answer I was looking for, I do understand why that assumption would be put forth given the first name on the list.

“A list of women you’ve dated?”

To this colorful response (which I am sure was made largely in jest), I offered back only that “I’ve actually never dated a Juliet.”

Several students in each class did submit a correct answer by the following Monday. This list is, of course, of moons (natural satellites) in our solar system. Most of the students submitting correct responses had found the answer in the way I assumed the majority would: an online search engine. However, at least one student insisted that a video game had provided him with enough information to take an educated guess. Finding out how and where the students sought an answer to my question was definitely interesting to me.

Many students were surprised to learn that our solar system includes nearly two hundred moons or “natural satellites”, including our own Moon – which is one of the largest.

I’ve recently been researching some of the moons in our solar system to a considerable extent. My goal had been to decide which would serve me best as one of the settings of a science fiction piece I’m hoping to complete this summer – Dying Up There.  The only real requirement for selection was that the moon be a realistic candidate to host life (and, in this case, specifically aquatic life). This is not a complete list of all the candidates, but these three really seemed to make strong cases to me: Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. Each of these moons appear to possess considerable quantities of liquid. There are good arguments supporting the belief that the bodies of liquid on each moon may be suitable for extraterrestrial life.

Europa is a moon of Jupiter, whereas Enceladus and Titan both orbit Saturn.

Europa

Europa
Europa photographed in 1996 by the Galileo spacecraft.

Prior to my research, my mind went immediately to Europa. Europa has been a standby in the world of science fiction, especially over the last four decades, as a potential home to extraterrestrial life. However, my research nearly convinced me to stray elsewhere. 

Comparable to our moon in size, Europa is probably best known for being featured prominently in the 1984 film 2010: The Year We Make Contact and the novel on which the film is based. More recent films, such as Europa Report, have kept the moon in the popular imagination. Europa is a favorite of science fiction writers (and of NASA) for good reason: there is strong evidence to support that this moon is home to an ocean 60 miles deep. By comparison, the deepest part of the Earth’s ocean is not quite seven miles from surface to bottom.

A quick look at an image of Europa will not reveal this massive ocean. Europa is, at any given time, five times farther away from the Sun than Earth. Europa’s surface is also far colder than any spot on Earth, even the most frigid regions of Antarctica. As a result, Europa’s ocean is believed to be frozen upwards of 20 miles deep. Thanks to tidal heating, a considerable part of this ocean may remain liquid. If hydrothermal vents on the seafloor are functional, as some strongly believe, this may allow for life forms to exist using chemosynthesis in a body of water with a chemical composition similar to our oceans.  There is a minority view that this ice-covered ocean may even occasionally melt through to the surface, producing what is referred to as “chaos terrain”. If this theory holds true, there may be a handful of locations on Europa’s smooth surface where the ocean is just “tens of meters” below the ice. Moreover, NASA has recently suggested that some features on Europa’s surface are covered in sea salt.

There are some regrettable drawbacks of Europa serving as a setting within my current work. The first being that Europa’s familiarity through many other appearances in science fiction over the last few decades boils away some of the “unknown” quality the moon may have previously possessed. Europa has essentially become the Mars of our generation, in terms of where science fiction writers suggest some kind of advanced extraterrestrial life may be encountered. There is also the pesky fact that Europa is bathed in radiation from Jupiter, making future human exploration there especially problematic.

Also worth mention is the fact that at least a few in the scientific community suspect that Europa’s ocean is biologically dead. Despite these less optimistic feelings, NASA has proposed a wide array of exploratory missions for Europa.

Enceladus

Enceladus
Enceladus photographed in 2015 by the Cassini spacecraft.

Enceladus could very well be what everyone wants Europa to be: a bastion of life in our solar system beyond the Earth. This tiny moon of Saturn is very remote, nearly ten times farther away from the Sun than the Earth, and has been only a bit player in the world of science fiction since first being discovered in 1789. Take a good look at the picture to the left. Doesn’t Enceladus look like a snowball? Oddly enough, cryovolcanoes on this little moon blast water vapor into space. As a result, some of this vapor falls back to the surface as what might be described as snow.

These cryovolcanoes are largely found in the southern region of the moon, and researchers believe that an ocean exists there beneath an ice shell. This is not a Europa-sized ocean, as Enceladus is only believed to be home to an ocean comparable to some of the larger bodies of water on Earth. However, this smaller Enceladus ocean is also believed to have a generally thinner ice covering than the oceans on Europa. Recent studies suggest that the ice covering this southern ocean on Enceladus is just three miles thick. Compare that to Europa’s expected average ice thickness and the ocean on Enceladus becomes immediately easier to access and explore.

An ocean on Enceladus could be kept liquid under a layer of ice by the same processes that may be working for Europa. Tidal heating is believed to trigger considerable geological activity on this moon, creating an array of fractures across the surface. This is conducive to keeping at least some of this ocean as liquid and helps create the unique chemical mix believed to exist within that sea. There is strong evidence that suggests hydrothermal activity may be at work below the ice and that the core of Enceladus allows water to freely enter through fissures and cracks to pick up additional heat.

However, Enceladus is not necessarily ideal for the setting I need. The conditions on Enceladus are not as grand as on Europa and the sheer number of possibilities seem somewhat limited compared to the latter. More troubling is a new study that states Enceladus is only one hundred million years old. That may seem ancient, but in the grand scheme of existence that is a relatively quick tick of the clock. Most sources suggest that life on Earth took almost one billion years to emerge. Enceladus may be painfully young on a cosmic scale and any life developing in that moon’s ocean must assuredly be very primitive.

Titan

Titan
Titan photographed in 2012 by the Cassini spacecraft.

Titan, no stranger to the world of science fiction, is Saturn’s largest moon and brings an entirely different set of attributes to the table. Larger than Europa and Enceladus, Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system. Aside from the Earth, Titan is also the only other body in the solar system with surface liquid. Titan is shrouded in a thick atmosphere and only in the last two decades have researchers gained a good understanding of this moon’s surface. Unlike nearby Enceladus, Titan is believed to be ancient. However, Titan’s surface is fairly young, which suggests recent geological activity. Titan is oddly Earth-like: there is precipitation, eroded channels cutting across the surface, and large bodies of liquid present.

Of course, Titan is very, very cold. This is not liquid water collecting on the surface of Titan, but liquid methane. Possessing a much lower freezing point, methane is able to exist as a liquid on Titan (also possessing a much lower boiling point, methane appears as a gas on Earth). Enough liquid methane rains down on the surface that substantial lakes and seas have formed in a few locations on Titan. Several of these bodies of liquid have been named. The largest three are Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare, and Punga Mare. Kraken Mare is the most impressive at over 500 feet deep and covering an area larger than Earth’s Caspian Sea. The largest bodies of liquid methane on Titan are found near the poles, where the indirect sunlight struggles to evaporate these seas.

A simulation recently run at Cornell University showed that the foundations for life could be constructed on Titan. Of course, the liquid methane would have to replace water in that process. Interestingly, research suggests this also may be very plausible.

Titan may also have liquid water under the surface, but most studies regarding such a ocean have taken a backseat to the lakes and seas on the surface. Life on Titan would be seriously hindered by the extreme cold and the moon’s atmosphere offers many additional complications.

If Titan is without life now, the future may be somewhat brighter. Literally. When the sun becomes a red giant, Titan may warm up enough to become much more hospitable to life. Unfortunately, these conditions would not last forever. The Earth would also be destroyed or jettisoned from the solar system by the same changes in the Sun. So, I don’t think too many people are looking forward to Titan’s potentially improved conditions.

Also worthy of note is that in 2005 a spacecraft from Earth landed on Titan, making the latter the most distant body landed on by a craft from the former.

Titan is incredibly interesting and really seems to have a very unique existence within our solar system. However, Titan is almost too far from where my imagination initially started. Titan’s methane lakes are undoubtedly science fiction worthy, but I really needed a definitely ice-covered sea to serve as a setting within Dying Up There.

Tentatively, I am going with Europa. Europa may not as edgy as Enceladus, but the wonder and possibilities associated with the former have created a legacy of intrigue. Enceladus makes for a solid backup plan. The very thought of jumping (or falling) into an alien sea, regardless of the temperature, is incredibly unnerving to me and that’s exactly the type of feeling I’m looking to create in my future readers.

Outside the realm of storytelling though, any of these moons make interesting candidates to host life and are worthy of exploration. This is, of course, a limited list. Which of these three seems the most likely to actually host life? Are there any other moons in our solar system worth throwing into the debate for best place to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system?