Journey To The Center of Europa


One of science’s greatest questions is whether or not life exists elsewhere in the universe. Astronomers constantly search the skies for possible signs of life—like potentially habitable planets, radio frequency emissions, or other unusual irregularities. We usually think of life existing somewhere thousands of light years away in a mysterious corner of the universe, but it is possible that alien life could thrive right here in our own solar system. Astronomers have suspected for years that Jupiter’s moon Europa has a deep salt water ocean hidden under its icy crust. The idea has even inspired several (excellent in my opinion) science fiction films like Europa Report, where the astronauts encounter a giant luminescent octopus creature hunting in the water beneath the ice. However, real-life scientists were concerned that there was no conclusive evidence of underwater volcanic activity on Europa and, without it, they believed the ocean would become too acidic and inhospitable for life. But researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have hypothesized that life might be able to thrive even without the volcanic activity through a chemical reaction between salt water and rock. This reaction, called “serpentinization” (whoosh, that’s a long word!), creates hydrogen from other minerals contained within the rock on the sea floor, and can be observed here on Earth. Radiation from Jupiter causes water molecules in Europa’s ice to split into other compounds that then react with the hydrogen and form a mixture that will support life without the heat from volcanoes. The researchers even say it would be easier for the process to happen without heat, because the sea rock cracks more easily in a cold environment and therefore exposes more minerals to serpentinization.

NASA is currently working on an mission to explore Europa, where a specially designed spacecraft will orbit Jupiter and take multiple close-up photos of Europa’s surface. This mission will allow scientists to find out exactly what elements make up this mysterious ice world, and hopefully answer some more questions about the possibility of life there. Cross your fingers they find a giant glowing octopus, because, I mean, what could be more awesome than that?

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May 23, 2016

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