Carolyn Porco is the team leader of NASA scientists who are involved in the Cassini mission to investigate Saturn and its moons. In her presentation at the Beyond Belief conference, she reveals that sometime last year the Cassini probe took extremely close-up photos of Enceladus (hovering just 175 km above that small moon of Saturn). Pictures taken by Cassini revealed that Enceladus has an icy surface, has an active geology, that its south pole has many fissures and that these fractures contain organic compounds. Moreover, the Cassini team discovered that the south pole is the warmest region of the moon. This, she says, is as remarkable as finding that the earth's Antarctic is warmer than the equator. But the most incredible find thus far has been the discovery of jets of fine ice streaming out of these fissures and shooting tens of kilometers into space, with the ejecta actually forming Saturn's outermost ring (known as the E-ring).
Porco enthusiastically tells us that given the presence of liquid water, elevated temperature, organic compounds, Enceladus probably has the conditions for sustaining biological life as we know it, and that there is a (slim) chance that microbial organisms are happily inhabiting it. If the latter is true, then it's also possible that these denizens are being launched (all freeze-dried I guess) into space courtesy of the plumes being created by the geysers. She goes on to say that if life is present in Enceladus then this would imply that the universe is almost surely brimming with life (knowing that two celestial bodies in one solar system have life vastly increases the probability that life in the universe is ubiquitous). Furthermore, such a finding would impact heavily on religions--not least Christianity.
Much as we would want superstition and mythology (aka religion) to be completely obliterated by the discovery of any form of extraterrestrial life (even unicellular), it will, on the contrary, spur faith-heads to dig their heels in even deeper. Faced with such undeniable facts and the consequent experience of cognitive dissonance, these religionists would crank the theology mill and run it at record speeds. And in no time at all we would be treated to a dazzling array of rationalizations and explanations (all without a shred of evidence and all nonfalsifiable, of course), all emanating from that wonderful human faculty called imagination (rather than empirical investigation).
There are to date some 200 planets that've been discovered outside our solar system. Thus far only Jovian-sized bodies have been detected. But as we engineer telescopes and instruments that have greater magnification and better resolution we will soon enough be able to pick out and see earth-sized planets that are not too close to their suns (else they won't be hospitable to life) . And who knows, in perhaps just two or three generations we may even finally stumble upon one that unmistakably bears the signature of life.
This may very well be wishful thinking on my part, but I can hardly wait for the day when the last human provincialism and centrism will be hacked--when we finally discover sentient, intelligent life out there. Discoveries over the centuries have already dealt a coup de grace to our various comforting egoistic, anthropocentric beliefs--our planet is not at the center of the solar system, our sun is not at the core of the Milky Way, our galaxy is just one in billions, Homo sapiens is just one terrestrial species and one with a long lineage, with humans sharing over 90% of their DNA with chimpanzees. Now that one last refuge of our narcissism is just waiting to be forever dissolved. What a thrilling disillusionment it will be when that day arrives.