Thursday, April 9, 2015

ANOTHER EARTH: Jupiter's Moon Europa Has More Water Than Earth - But Does It Have Life?!

April 9, 2015 -  SPACE
 -  Europa has become quite a popular topic for discussion as of late and not only within the scientific community. Indeed, it seems like everyone and their dog are interested in learning about and discussing the latest science news nowadays, which often brings tears of joy to my eyes to be honest. But enough about that, let’s talk about Europa. What is it? I’m sure it sounds like we’re just talking about the continent of Europe to some, but this is in fact a very different animal altogether. Europa, named after one of Zeus’ lovers, is one of Jupiter’s largest moons, the other three being Ganymede, Callisto, and Io.

These four moons were the very first objects found to be orbiting another planet and they’re commonly known as the Galilean satellites after Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei who made the discovery. Fun fact: each of the four moons is named after one of Zeus’ lovers, which shouldn’t be too surprising since in Roman mythology Jupiter is the equivalent of Zeus. But mythology aside, of these four satellites Europa is the most fascinating one because it might be the first place where we can find extraterrestrial life. In their endless quest to find signs of life elsewhere in our Solar system, scientists are now looking at Europa as the most likely candidate due to the fact that the moon is entirely covered by vast oceans of water.

For the longest time we believed that water might be unique to our pale blue dot, but as it turns out there’s plenty of it in other places, too. As a matter of fact, there’s two to three times as much water on Europa than there is on Earth, which is pretty outstanding given that the moon is much smaller than our planet and smaller even than our own Moon. Astronomers have been aware of the water on Europa for quite some time, but it was initially thought that most if not all of it must be in solid form, aka ice. However, the consensus changed over the years and now scientists are pretty sure that most of the water on Europa is in liquid form and can be found if we are able to dig far enough into the icy surface. And that’s where NASA comes in.

The quantity of water found on Europa vs the quantity of water found on Earth.

Back in February, the space agency announced its plans to send an expedition to Europa with the main purpose of looking and hopefully even finding the first extraterrestrial life forms. No one really expects potential life forms over there to be very evolved, but there’s a pretty good chance of finding microorganism beneath the surface, which would still be a great accomplishment needless to say. There aren’t many details in regards to how NASA plans to go about it, but we should learn more about it very soon. “Looking to the future, we’re planning a mission to explore Jupiter’s fascinating moon Europa, selecting instruments this spring and moving toward the next phase of our work,” said NASA’s Charles Bolden. The agency also recently promised that signs pointing at the existence of extraterrestrial life should be found within the decade, with solid evidence to arrive shortly after. Presumably, Europa will play a key role in fulfilling this promise.

In order to prepare for the upcoming Europa expedition, researchers are currently analyzing the amount of life that can be found beneath the thick Antarctic ice. Surprisingly, there’s plenty of sea life down there as proven by a recent expedition that involved submerging a remotely operated robot at depths of no less than 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) beneath sea level. Despite the harsh conditions found there, scientists learned that life was not only present, but even thriving. The results are very promising since the conditions found beneath the thick layers of ice in Antarctica are expected to be similar to those found in the oceans of Europa. “We’re advancing hypotheses that we need for Europa, and understanding ocean systems here better,” said research engineer Britney Schmidt. “We’re also developing and getting comfortable with technologies that make polar science, and eventually Europa science, more realistic.” - Geek Snack.

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