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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Getting closer! New Horizons sees two of Pluto’s smaller moons for first time

Long-exposure images taken by New Horizons between Jan. 27 and Feb. 8, 2015, showing the two tiny moons Hydra (inside yellow diamond) and Nix (inside orange diamond). Image Credit: Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Long-exposure images taken by New Horizons between Jan. 27 and Feb. 8, 2015, showing the two tiny moons Hydra (inside yellow diamond) and Nix (inside orange diamond). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The New Horizons spacecraft, on course for a historic encounter with Pluto this summer, is now close enough to see two of its smaller moons for the first time. The new views also come 85 years after the discovery of Pluto by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh on Feb. 18, 1930.

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New technique provides better, clearer radar images of Titan’s amazing surface

Radar view of Ligeia Mare, a large hydrocarbon sea on Titan. The original version is on the left and the enhanced, “despeckled” version is on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI
Radar view of Ligeia Mare, a large hydrocarbon sea on Titan. The original version is on the left and the enhanced, “despeckled” version is on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is a fascinating world, uniquely alien yet eerily Earth-like in many ways, with its rain, rivers, lakes, seas, and massive sand dunes. But in this extremely cold environment, it is liquid methane and ethane which act as “water,” mimicking the hydrological cycle on Earth. Also, due to the perpetual and global hazy cloud cover, the only way to see these features from orbit is by using radar, which is what the Cassini spacecraft has done on a regular basis for quite a few years now. As good as they are, though, the radar images contain electronic noise, which reduces sharpness and clarity. But now a new technique is letting planetary scientists see Titan’s surface more clearly than ever before.

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Cassini data indicates Enceladus’ ocean similar to soda lakes on Earth

The geysers of Enceladus, erupting through cracks in the ice at the south pole from a subsurface salty ocean or sea. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
The geysers of Enceladus, erupting through cracks in the ice at the south pole from a subsurface salty ocean or sea. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Along with Jupiter’s infamous moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus is one of the most fascinating places in the Solar System, with its huge geysers of water vapour erupting from cracks in the surface at the south pole. The massive plumes are now thought to originate in a subsurface ocean or sea of salty liquid water, similar perhaps to Europa’s underground ocean. Now, new analysis is providing a more detailed look at the chemical makeup of this unique alien environment and its potential to support life.

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Does Saturn’s moon Dione also have a subsurface ocean?

The cratered surface of Dione, as seen by Cassini. Did (or does) an ocean lurk beneath the surface? Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute
The cratered surface of Dione, as seen by Cassini. Did (or does) an ocean lurk beneath the surface? Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute

The outer solar system was once thought to be not much more than a frozen wasteland, at least in terms of the many moons orbiting the gas and ice giant planets. But with the intriguing discoveries made by robotic probes such as Voyager, Galileo and Cassini, we now know differently.

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The three best places in the solar system to look for life (other than Mars)

Europa
Europa. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Not all that long ago, it was considered very unlikely that life could exist anywhere else in the solar system, apart from maybe Mars. A variety of robotic spacecraft missions, however, have changed scientists’ views; there are indeed a handful of other worlds in our own cosmic backyard which it is now known could potentially be habitable after all.

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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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