A Week in the Life of Carolyn Porco

This essay was first published in The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 10, 2016.

Several months back, eager for the intellectual milieu that only a top-notch university can offer, I accepted a position as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and headed west from Boulder, Colo. Not that my life for the past 25 years, as part of NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn, had been boring: It's not every day that one is given the challenge of leading a team in returning the official visual record of the first in-depth exploration of the most iconic planetary system in orbit around the sun. And there are smaller thrills than watching those wondrous, eye-popping images of Saturn and its rings and moons come streaming back to Earth over the last dozen years.

But even the best job in the inner solar system can crowd out other joys, and I yearned to find out what had happened down here on Earth while I wasn't looking.

I now awaken each morning to a view of Richardson Bay in Marin County, a place made lush and gentle by water. And I am grateful to be here.

I drive to Berkeley and settle into my campus office overlooking Hearst Mining Circle. My day job is still headquartered back in Boulder, where my fabulous staff members are busy keeping things on course; I remain in touch through the marvel of the Internet.

Today, we're working on a news release. On Enceladus, one of Saturn's more than 60 moons, the mission had earlier found 101 towering jets of frozen mist, erupting through the surface from a salty interior water ocean laced with compounds containing carbon. That makes Enceladus the most promising environment yet in which to search for a second genesis of life.

To first set eyes on this rare spectacle in the early days of our travels around Saturn was, in every sense, out of this world. I wondered: Did the first Homo sapiens who stumbled upon the boiling, spouting turmoil in North America's Yellowstone region feel the same rush I did when looking at the geyser basin of Enceladus? It has been an explorer's dream come true — a landmark in the annals of planetary exploration.

By the end of the day, we've announced the news: The ocean under the surface of Enceladus is in fact globe-encircling — that is, even better than we thought. For the second time today, I feel grateful.

The ocean announcement, the imminent end of Cassini's time at Saturn and the historic photos of Pluto captured by the New Horizons spacecraft a few months ago have driven demand for press interviews to a fever pitch. I can barely keep up. American, British, German production crews and other media outlets all want original, sincere expressions of profound surprise and amazement from me. After too many interviews, I run out of words and wind up saying the same thing over and over. I laugh to myself, imagining what the producers will say when they find out.

For the past decade, I have pushed passionately — in public and among my colleagues — for a mission back to Enceladus that would do what Cassini can't: take a real shot at finding life within the moon's ocean. The winning card here is accessibility. No other possible abode of life in our solar system is so well understood or presents itself so handsomely, with ocean samples spraying into space and snowing back down onto the surface, readily available to any passing spacecraft.

But Saturn is far, the challenge would be expensive, and NASA budgets have been too restrictive to do much.

Until today, that is. I get a call from the director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, Jim Green, informing me of a new NASA announcement: The agency will consider proposals for missions to Enceladus — with hefty, enabling budgets — as early as 2017. The door is finally open! And I know in my bones that I lead a charmed existence.

—Dr. Porco is the leader of the imaging science team on the Cassini mission to Saturn, an associate member of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and a former imaging scientist on the 1980s Voyager mission to the outer solar system

Back to Popular Writings