With strong evidence emerging that Europa—one of Jupiter's most interesting moons—may contain huge life-giving waters under its icy surface, the probabilities now increase that life exists on at least several worlds in our solar system.
Since 1976 it's been thought by some that rudimentary life is eking out an existence on the Red Planet Mars, and some evidence suggests that life might exist in the swirling, acidic clouds of Venus, the electrically charged atmosphere of Jupiter, and the frozen methane lakes of Saturn's Titan.
Now NASA has released a significant finding culled from the reams of data gathered by the famous Galileo space probe mission that was launched by the now retired Atlantis space shuttle during 1989. The probe plumbed the mysteries of the Jovian giant and its myriad moons.
Galileo, they announced, appears to have "a body of liquid water the volume of the North American Great Lakes locked inside the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa." [NASA]
A new study ["Active formation of ‘chaos terrain’ over shallow subsurface water on Europa"] appearing in the journal Nature, argues that Europa may have life and that many such watery regions that can support exotic alien life might exist in pockets across the moon's interior surfaces.
"The data opens up some compelling possibilities," Mary Voytek, the director of NASA's Astrobiology Program is quoted as telling a NASA news writer. "However, scientists worldwide will want to take a close look at this analysis and review the data before we can fully appreciate the implication of these results."
One of the study's lead authors, Britney Schmidt, told NASA "One opinion in the scientific community has been if the ice shell is thick, that's bad for biology. That might mean the surface isn't communicating with the underlying ocean. Now, we see evidence that it's a thick ice shell that can mix vigorously and new evidence for giant shallow lakes. That could make Europa and its ocean more habitable."
The key is the giant gas planet Jupiter. Its radiation continually baths the icy moon with radiation causing a build-up of heat in the depths far below the surface ice of the little world.
Geological processes occurring in the interaction between Europa and Jupiter is also creating an oxygen-rich environment. Many excited exobiologists agree that Europa is a perfect "soup" having all the ingredients needed to support aquatic lifeforms.
The study also investigated Europa's chaotic subsurface terrain. Scientists believe the geology itself may lend support to life by providing an avenue for nutrients and energy transfer between the forbidding surface of the moon and its darkest depths.
Because the ice is miles thick, plans are being discussed to launch a special cryobot [Photo] to Europa in the future. Such a probe would bore through the ice and explore the mysterious lakes far beneath the surface like a robot submarine.
What it may find is a mini-world teeming with life.