Jun
23

Alien Ocean

Could a liquid water ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa have the ingredients to support life? Smithsonian scientists are among those helping NASA find out.

 

The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. The scene shows the stunning diversity of Europa’s surface geology. Long, linear cracks and ridges crisscross the surface, interrupted by regions of disrupted terrain where the surface ice crust has been broken up and re-frozen into new patterns. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. The scene shows the stunning diversity of Europa’s surface geology. Long, linear cracks and ridges crisscross the surface, interrupted by regions of disrupted terrain where the surface ice crust has been broken up and re-frozen into new patterns. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

Beyond Earth, Jupiter’s moon Europa is considered one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for signs of present-day life, and a new NASA mission to explore this potential is moving forward.

The space agency recently announced that it has selected nine science instruments for a mission to Europa, scheduled to launch in the next decade, to investigate whether the mysterious icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.The instruments will scan Europa for environments that could sustain life. NASA’s earlier Gallileo mission yielded strong evidence that Europa, about the size of Earth’s moon, has an ocean beneath a frozen crust of unknown thickness. If proven to exist, this global ocean could have more than twice as much water as Earth. With abundant salt water, a rocky sea floor, and the energy and chemistry provided by tidal heating, Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present day life beyond our home planet.

Bruce Campbell, chair of the Center for Earth and Planetary Study at the National Air and Space Museum, is a member of the University of Texas-based team that developed one of the instruments for the mission, REASON (Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface). REASON will probe kilometers deep into Europa’s ice shelf to detect pockets of water within the ice that could serve as a passageway for sulfuric compounds, one of life’s chemical building blocks, on the moon’s surface to the liquid ocean below the ice — an environment where life could potentially develop.

“My role in the development of REASON builds on work I currently do as a science team member for the SHARAD radar instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,” Campbell says. “This includes working on how the surface roughness affects detection of subsurface features, and understanding the right kinds of radar processing to apply for various geologic studies.”

Bizarre features on Europa’s icy surface suggest a warm interior. This view of the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa was obtained by NASA's Galileo mission. (Image credit: NASA / JPL-CalTech)

Bizarre features on Europa’s icy surface suggest a warm interior. This view of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa was obtained by NASA’s Galileo mission. (Image credit: NASA / JPL-CalTech)

Read more about the REASON project here >>

 

Could a liquid water ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa have the ingredients to support life?

Alien Ocean: NASA’s Mission to Europa

 


Posted: 23 June 2015
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.