Will Europa finally answer, ‘Are we alone?’

While NASA’s much-lauded Space Launch System stands ready for its maiden flight later this month with the goal of sending astronauts back to the Moon in the next few years, our gazes once again turn to the stars as we continue to ask the question that has plagued humankind since time immemorial: Are we alone? While there are several solar system locales that we can choose from to conduct our search for life beyond Earth, to include Mars and Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, one planetary body orbiting the largest planet in the solar system has peaked the interest of scientists since the 1970s.

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What’s the Right Depth to Search for Life on Icy Worlds?

Are we alone? Is there life beyond Earth? These are the questions that plague the very essence of science, and in particular, planetary science. Unfortunately, robotic exploration of exoplanetary systems currently remains out of reach due to the literal astronomical distances to get there. For context, our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light years away, or a mind-blowing 40,208,000,000,000 km (25,000,000,000,000 miles) from Earth. Finding an intelligent civilization might be out of reach for now but searching for any forms of life beyond Earth is very much possible within the confines of our own solar system.

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There Might be Volcanoes at the Bottom of Europa’s sub-ice Oceans

Artist's concept of a Europa Clipper mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

In about three years, NASA plans to launch a robotic orbiter that will study Jupiter’s mysterious moon Europa. It’s called the Europa Clipper mission, which will spend four years orbiting Europa to learn more about its ice sheet, interior structure, chemical composition, and plume activity. In the process, NASA hopes to find evidence that will help resolve the ongoing debate as to whether or not Europa harbors life in its interior.

Naturally, scientists are especially curious about what the Clipper mission might find, especially in Europa’s interior. According to new research and modeling supported by NASA, it’s possible that volcanic activity occurred on the seafloor in the recent past – which could be happening still. This research is the most detailed and thorough 3D modeling on how internal heat is produced and transferred and what effect this will have on a moon.

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Europa’s Nightside Glows in the Dark

This illustration of Jupiter's moon Europa shows how the icy surface may glow on its nightside, the side facing away from the Sun. Variations in the glow and the color of the glow itself could reveal information about the composition of ice on Europa's surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a few years, NASA will be sending a spacecraft to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Known as the Europa Clipper mission, this orbiter will examine the surface more closely to search for plume activity and evidence of biosignatures. Such a find could answer the burning question of whether or not there is life within this moon, which is something scientists have speculated about since the 1970s.

In anticipation of this mission, scientists continue to anticipate what it will find once it gets there. For instance, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently conducted a study that showed how Europa might glow in the dark. This could be the result of Europa constantly being pummeled with high-energy radiation from Jupiter’s magnetic field, the study of which could tell scientists more about the composition of Europa’s ice.

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More Evidence that Europa’s Oceans Could be Habitable

A "true color" image of the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

At first glance, Jupiter’s moon Europa doesn’t seem much like Earth. It’s a moon, not a planet, and it’s covered in ice. But it does have one important thing in common with Earth: a warm, salty ocean.

Now there’s even more evidence that Europa’s sub-surface ocean is habitable.

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