It would have been the most celebrated discovery in human history: life on another world. But the press and the late night comedians soon turned what should have been an auspicious occasion into one great big joke.
In February of 2050, NASA’s Herschel spacecraft released a small probe, one of many such probes designed to penetrate the atmospheres of gas giants. We had learned much about the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn in this manner, but the Herschel mission would be a first, in more ways than one.
Among its many scientific instruments, the Herschel probe included a camera. We expected to see a tranquil layer of blue-green clouds, with a layer of storms underneath. If we were lucky, we thought we might even see methane ice crystals falling like snow.
But then, in a forty-three second sequence of images, we saw them. They were giant, shadowy forms lurking in the dark, occasionally backlit by lightning. They were enormous, easily the size of whales, and there were swarms of smaller organisms all around them, like the krill whales feed upon.
The krill-like life forms are difficult to make out in any detail, but the whales are clearly held aloft by gas bladders, filled with hydrogen, perhaps; and they have fin-like wings which they must use to maneuver. A great multitude of tentacles dangle from their underbellies, tentacles which seem to be writhing violently from one photo to the next, very much as though these animals were busily feeding.
Of all the places in the Solar System, this was the last place we expected to find alien life. How could these creatures have evolved? How could such a complex ecosystem sustain itself in the cold, far reaches of the Solar System? These will have to be questions for some future mission, assuming Congress and the general public will take this seriously enough to support a future mission.
But unfortunately these mysterious and majestic creatures have become the laughing stock of the world, all because of one minor circumstance. All because of the planet where they happen to live. All because of that planet’s name.
Although, truth be told, who wouldn’t laugh a little when the top headline on every newspaper reads: “Alien life discovered in Uranus.”