NASA turns up ocean of water, and possibility of life, on Jupiter's moon

NASA Galileo spacecraft made the discovery on Jupiter’s moon Europa possible

jupiter's europa
Mars gets most of the attention when it comes to research looking for signs of life, but that could change now.  NASA today said has found what looks like a pretty good size body of water equal in volume to the Great Lakes under the icy surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa.

The finding could represent a new potential habitat for life, NASA said. Further increasing that chance is the fact that  many of these lakes are covered by floating ice shelves that seem to be collapsing, providing a mechanism for transferring nutrients and energy between the surface and a vast ocean already thought to exist below a perhaps miles thick ice shell.

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"The potential for exchange of material between the surface and subsurface is a big key for astrobiology," said Wes Patterson, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and a co-author of the study that detailed the findings. "Europa's subsurface harbors much of what we believe is necessary for life but chemical nutrients found at the surface are likely vital for driving biology."

The study was made possible by NASA's Galileo spacecraft, launched from the shuttle Atlantis in 1989 to study Jupiter and its moons. 

The study authors have good reason to believe their conclusions are correct, based on observations of Europa from Galileo and of Earth. Still, because the inferred lakes are several miles below the surface, the only true confirmation of their presence would come from a future spacecraft mission designed to probe the ice shell.   Just such as mission was recommended by the National Research Council in March in a report to NASA prioritize space missions. 

From that report scientists said this mission to explore Europa and its subsurface ocean offer "one of the most promising environments in the solar system for supporting life -- should be the second priority for NASA's large-scale planetary science missions. However, NASA should fly the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO) only if NASA's budget for planetary science is increased, the report says, and JEO's mission scope is made more affordable. The independent estimate put the price tag at $4.7 billion.

"This moon, with its probable vast subsurface ocean sandwiched between a potentially active silicate interior and a highly dynamic surface ice shell, offers one of the most promising extraterrestrial habitable environments in our solar system and a plausible model for habitable environments outside it. The Jupiter system in which Europa resides hosts an astonishing diversity of phenomena, illuminating fundamental planetary processes. While Voyager and Galileo taught us much about Europa and the Jupiter system, the relatively primitive instrumentation of those missions, and the low data volumes returned, left many questions unanswered.  Major discoveries surely remain to be made," the report states.

A paper outlining the Europa findings, "Active formation of 'chaos terrain' over shallow subsurface water on Europa," will appear in Nature this week.

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