Scientists: Europa's Ocean Similar to Earth's, May Contain Life

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A new study to be published in Astronomical Journal suggests that the subsurface ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa may be an abode of life. This conclusion is based on recent observations of an Earth-bound telescope in Hawaii.

More evidence that Europa's ocean may contain life

Space Daily reports that a paper to be published by Mike Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and Kevin Hand from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, provides the strongest evidence yet that Europa's ocean, trapped beneath a crust of solid ice, may contain life because of its chemical composition and its temperature caused by tidal forces. The paper is the result of studies done by the Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and its OSIRIS spectrometer.

Chemical composition of Europa ocean similar to Earth's oceans

The observations detected the presence of magnesium sulfate salt on the icy surface of Europa, according to Space Daily. The material seems to have been generated by sulfur ejected by one of Jupiter's other moons, Io, plus magnesium chloride salt coming up from Europa's subsurface ocean. With chlorides such as sodium and potassium chlorides thought to also exist on Europa's surface, scientists now believe that the subsurface ocean is very similar to that of Earth's oceans.

Options being considered for exploring Europa

With attempts to find microbial life on Mars so far not bearing any fruit, some scientists are increasingly turning to Europa as a possible target of exploration. The European Space Agency Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer, in which NASA is a participant, will conduct a number of flybys of Europa, but is more focused on another of Jupiter's moons, Ganymede. While NASA has studied an Europa orbiter for some years, recent Obama administration budget cuts have forced a descoping of such a mission to consist of a number of flybys of the icy moon in a mission called Europa Clipper, according to Space.com. The probe would include a number of instruments, including an ice-penetrating radar, a topographical imager, a magnetometer, an infrared spectrometer, and a neutral mass spectrometer. If approved, the Europa Clipper would launch in 2021 and would cost $2 billion.

Landing on Europa

Further into the future, NASA dreams of sending a probe to land on Europa. According to a Space.com story published on the NBC News site, the holy grail of a robotic mission to Europa would consist of a small submarine that would somehow penetrate the icy crust of the moon and explore the subsurface ocean, finding out once and for all whether life exists there. That mission will occur, if at all, further into the current century due to NASA's lean budget.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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