/Life in the Solar System

Life in the Solar System

My Journey to Saturn

If mankind cannot sustain on Gaia, will the solar system have a second chance to create life? Search for extraterrestrial life in the solar system has so far been disappointing. Mars could apparently sustain some kind of bacterial life, but so far, we have not found decisive evidence of life on Mars. Some moons of Jupiter and Jupiter itself could be possible habitats for strange forms of life. But again, no clear evidence has been found.

Further out is Saturn. Its moon Titan is particularly exciting because its atmosphere has high concentrations of methane. Today, the conditions on Titan resemble those which give birth to life on Earth, billions of years ago. Therefore, when it was decided to send the space probe Cassini to Saturn, it was also decided to equip Cassini with a smaller probe called Huygens designed to land on Titan and to take pictures and perform other measurements.

Because of its mission to search for life, Huygens was also equipped with a CD-ROM containing samples of life on Earth. The European Space Agency (ESA) published an invitation to supply such samples in scientific journals. Somewhat sceptical I decided to contribute. However, after some brainstorming with myself, I decided to offer a poem that I had written a few years earlier. A poem was as good a sample, as any other evidence of life on Earth, that I could think of.

I sent the poem by email to ESA and forgot the idea. However, half a year later I got a letter from ESA informing me that my sample had been accepted and that it would travel on board the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft to Saturn and, if everything went well, land on Titan. It was therefore with considerable interest that I watched the launch of the Cassini spacecraft on October 15, 1997. The launch was a success, but the journey would take almost seven years! The idea that I had to wait for seven years before knowing if my poem really would land on the surface of Titan seemed, to say the least, unreal.

Every now and then there was some news about some testing taking place on Cassini. Problems with the antennas … etc. But it all sounded promising so, … I waited. And waited. Seven years is a long journey.

On June 30, 2004, at 10:30 p.m. Cassini entered into orbit around Saturn after having travelled more than ten times the distance between the sun and Earth. That day I went to my office and told every colleague I could find: “Listen, today is The Orbit Insertion Day! The day I have been waiting for seven years!!!”. I got some strange looks. But, it did not matter, somehow I felt like being “almost there”. The Orbit Insertion Day … unbelievable.


This is Titan,
like Earth long ago before life was born,

and maybe, a source of life in a distant, unknown future.

Despite some initial technical problems Huygens was finally ejected to enter the demanding decent through the atmosphere of Titan, and the probe finally landed successfully on January 15, 2005. What a day!

That I had been able to send a message from my home, from my writing desk, all the way to Titan, ten times as far as the sun, sounded unlikely, somehow difficult to believe – even for me. But it was true; in fact, it was an opportunity in a lifetime – at least in my lifetime. The first images returned by Huygens from Titan looked familiar: rivers, a shoreline, mountains, and seas of liquid methane … A world both alien and familiar. Amazingly, I could even see a small land strip, the shore, where the poem had landed…

Titan is a very cold place. But in a distant future …? Ultimately the sun will expand and become a red giant. The dead Earth will circulate inside it. Will the sun then warm the surface of Titan? Will this be a second chance for life in our solar system?

People often ask me if I think aliens will read my poem. Of course not. But, when I look at the sky late at night and see Saturn as a white dot among the billions of stars, it gives me a strange satisfaction that  I have sent a message to that dot over there, to a place where life can still be born, born for a second time in a very distant future.

Here, a sample of life on Earth, my poem somewhere on Titan:

early nightfall
the trees are almost black
but, the sky is still bright and blue
a deep infinite ocean full of light
suddenly I can see a tiny star
a tiny dot, penetrating the enormous blue ocean
what a strange encounter!
it is almost infinitely huge and unimaginable  far away
but somehow can we meet here
here, on the narrow path
in my forest