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A New View of Europa

Europa is like a spherical ice cube that has partially melted. In fact, if you shook this small moon of Jupiter, you might hear a sloshing sound.

That’s because a deep, global ocean lies beneath the moon’s frozen, criss-crossed crust – an ocean that might be as much as 100 kilometers deep. In fact, Europa’s ocean is so vast that it contains between two and three times as much water as all the oceans on Earth, combined.

What swims in that alien sea? We don’t yet know. Maybe nothing. But astrobiologists have placed Europa at – or near – the top of their visitation wish-list for decades. That massive ocean, which is likely filled with minerals from the alien ocean floor, plus the possibility of hydrothermal sea vents, makes this small moon one of the best places to look for life beyond Earth in the solar system.

Piercing that icy crust and sinking a spacecraft into the ocean is no trivial matter, though. But not to worry: Scientists are working on solving that problem. And maybe in the next decade or so, Earth will send a spacecraft to this faraway moon, a probe tasked with sniffing around and possibly scouting out landing sites for future spacecraft.

It wouldn’t be the first time a robotic emissary had the moon in sight, though. In the 1990s, the Galileo spacecraft zipped through the Jovian system and studied the solar system’s most massive world. Part of that campaign included taking pictures of the many moons in Jupiter’s gravitational clutches.

If you thought you’d seen all the images Galileo had to offer, you’d be wrong. NASA released a new view of Europa today. It’s a reprocessed version of images taken on November 6, 1997, and spans an area that’s roughly 160 square kilometers. Those red streaks that look like highways are formed by sulfur-containing compounds oozing through the ice. And if the streaks are anything like what we see on Earth – up in the Canadian Arctic – then maybe they’re the mark of life beneath the surface.

19 thoughts on “A New View of Europa

  1. “In the 1990s, the Galileo spacecraft zipped through the Jovian system and studied the solar system’s most massive world.”

    The Galileo mission didn’t just zip through, it orbited Jupiter 7 and 3/4 years

    (ND: I wasn’t suggesting that it dropped in for a brief visit. Perhaps “zipped around” would have been better.)

  2. Actually there is no longer a need to penetrate the ice to check for life there. Some of the nations top astronomers have already revealed very strong evidence that the red materials visible along many cracks is cycled up from below the surface. Therefore merely landing a probe to test and examine these surface materials is very likely all that is needed to directly check for the presence of life. This is far better than frittering away another decade to send an orbiting probe to drag out “distance observations” that can never answer the questions that a surface probe could. Europa’s likely Ocean has been known about for more than 20 years now, We’ve really waited ling enough. Let’s get on the surface and test directly for life, instead of purposely sending missions that are guaranteed to be inconclusive.

  3. Even taking into account the difference in gravity between Earth and Europa, the pressure at the bottom of the Europan sea will be about 1,300 atmospheres, or 200 atm more than the deepest part of Earths ocean, Marianas Trench. That’s going to be quite a challenge, not just for us to visit, but for any organism that wants to live there.

    1. Yes but life in Earths oceans doesn’t only exist at the bottom of the water column. What would the pressure be just below Europa’s ice crust? Far less of course.

      Evaluating only the potential pressure in the deepest possible part of Europa’s ocean is tunnel vision.

    1. Europa has an OCEAN, with evidence of it’s contents having leaked to the SURFACE (making it easy to check if there is life there).

      The moon has no atmosphere and no life. Mars has LOTS OF SAND.

      Lets just send one little probe to LAND on the SURFACE of Europa to check for life,

      And let’s do it before we are all DEAD from OLD AGE. Not in the “2030’s”, not another orbiter in 2024, but a REAL LANDER with a real probe. You know, like the ones we send to Mars every few years to play around in the sand…

      P.S. I would like to see a human settlement on Mars (Elon Musk will do that), but for extraterrestrial life– lets just get a little lander probe to Europa, and sooner rather than later.

  4. I don’t feel the moon has been explored completely yet . I’d be interested in knowing more about that first and work out the problems of building off world as well as mineral eexploration etc.

  5. If the Europans spend more than a trivial amount of their GPP repairing and strengthening their protective ice shell, they are not going to take kindly to our attempts to drill through it.

  6. Chemical reactions help serve as evidence of life forms. The sulfur based compounds may be a vital component for other life forms we have never studied before. Many scientists are skeptical of the living conditions on other planets, however, we have never found any other life forms to determine the possible and very different compounds that might be enough to sustain life elsewhere. The narrow minded thought that carbon must be present for “life” to exist, is not accurate because we do not know the needs of other life. The vast ocean present on Europa, as stated in the article, is a great discovery that will serve for great exploration and research of other life or even atmospheres to learn about.

  7. I wish I could be around in 100 years because we might know more by then,it’s cruel giving us all these “maybe’s” when the reality is it will be highly unlikely we know anything in our lifetime.

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