Scientists debate how to search for life on Europa in new mission

Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa hides a water ocean beneath its surface. A return mission is now planned to help search for evidence of life there. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL
Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa hides a water ocean beneath its surface. A return mission is now planned to help search for evidence of life there. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

Jupiter’s moon Europa, with its subsurface ocean, is considered by many to be the best place in the Solar System to search for extraterrestrial life. With NASA now committing itself to a new mission sometime in the 2020s, the focus is turning to what would be the best strategy for looking for any life which may be there. Over 200 scientists and engineers met at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., last week for a workshop called The Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume to do just that.

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Water plumes and clay-type minerals discovered on Jupiter’s ocean moon Europa

NASA and the European Space Agency have made several startling discoveries about the icy Jovian moon Europa. Credit: NASA/ESA
NASA and the European Space Agency have made several startling discoveries about the icy Jovian moon Europa. Credit: NASA/ESA

Europa has intrigued people for decades, ever since the first evidence was found that this small icy moon of Jupiter harbours a subsurface ocean. Additional information about the actual conditions below the surface have been difficult to obtain, since this ocean is covered by a global crust of ice perhaps ten of kilometres thick in places. But perseverance pays off, and now in just this past week there are two new significant discoveries being talked about – evidence from the Hubble Space Telescope for water vapour plumesannounced on Thursdayerupting from Europa’s surface similar to those on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and the first detection of clay-type minerals on the surface, announced on Wednesday.

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Searching for life in Europa’s ocean – with a tiny submarine

Artist's conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters. Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University
Artist’s conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters.
Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University

For decades, Jupiter’s moon Europa has been the focus of fascination and debate. Why? Because it has a global ocean – a deep, salty ocean similar to those on Earth, except that in Europa’s case it is always covered by a crust of ice. Speculation has grown that there could be life of some kind in that alien watery darkness, and now there is a new proposal for how to look for it – a tiny submarine!

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Does Europa have ‘icy spikes’ on its surface?

Penitentes on the Andes mountains on Earth. Is there something similar on Europa as well? Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Penitentes on the Andes mountains on Earth. Is there something similar on Europa as well?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Europa is a fascinating little world, a moon with an icy crust and a subsurface global ocean. The environment is similar to the ice-covered waters at the Earth’s poles. Now scientists think that there may be another feature which is also found on Earth – huge frozen spikes of ice on the surface.

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