How Scientists Will Look for Alien Life on Ocean Moons

Planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine talks about missions to Titan, Europa, and Enceladus in a new episode of Motherboard’s Space Show.
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Life on Earth likely emerged in our planet’s oceans, which is why scientists hoping to find extraterrestrial life elsewhere are particularly interested in ocean worlds. Fortunately, there are multiple moons right here in our own solar system that fit that description, some of which host watery depths and, in one case, strange seas made of hydrocarbons. 

Jonathan Lunine, who serves as David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and Chair of the department of astronomy at Cornell University, has spent his career studying these fascinating ocean moons and their potential to host life. He was one of the first people to see images from Saturn’s moon Titan after the successful landing of the Huygens Probe in 2005, which revealed an otherworldly surface covered in liquid methane.


“It was clear that Huygens had floated over this large hill made of something—ice presumably—into which had been carved these gullies,” Lunine recalled in an episode of Motherboard’s Space Show posted on Wednesday. “Carved by what? Almost certainly by liquid methane.” 

“I just remember several of us were screaming because this was an incredibly exciting landscape,” he continued. “It had its own style.” 

In addition to his extensive research on Titan, Lunine is part of the science team for a NASA mission that will launch to Jupiter’s moon Europa this decade, plus he heads up a proposed mission to Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Both of these chilly worlds contain liquid water oceans under their icy shells, making them promising candidates in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Watch the episode to learn more about the huge drone scientists hope to send to Titan, the playful trope of space whales on Europa, and how Lunine and his colleagues plan to detect alien poop, if it exists, in Enceladus’ watery plumes.