NASA recently got its closest look at Europa, the Jovian moon that scientists believe hides an ocean of liquid water under its icy crust and has a thin atmosphere of mostly oxygen.
The smart guys in lab coats speculate that if alien life is to be found in the solar system, Jupiter’s Europa is a prime candidate. Probably, THE prime candidate. We’re talking microbial life, more than likely, but life nonetheless.
The Juno probe is making the closest run to Europa since Galileo in 2000. Juno’s two-hour fly-by at 219 miles above the moon’s surface gave NASA its three closest-ever looks, shared recently by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
JPL officials said the images reveal rugged terrain, including tall, shadow-casting blocks (monoliths, anyone?), bright and dark ridges and troughs that curve across the surface, and even a possible impact crater.
So, aside from satisfying our inner nerd, why is this important?
NASA is gathering as much information about Europan geology as it can in advance of the Europa Clipper mission, scheduled to launch in 2024. JPL says the mission will study the atmosphere, surface and interior of the moon to try and help determine if its ocean could support life as we know it.
Perhaps most importantly, NASA hopes Clipper can identify potentially habitable “pockets” of liquid water just underneath the ice cap. The mission is scheduled to reach Europa in 2030.
Europa’s life-sustaining possibilities have helped necessitate a rethinking of what constitutes a “Goldilocks zone.”
For starters, scientists are convinced there’s liquid water under the cap on Europa, and that the tidal give-and-go from Jupiter enables the water to remain liquid and drive crust movement similar to plate tectonics. This interaction enables chemical absorption from the surface into the water below.
This speculated interaction would provide, potentially, building blocks for life. At least, as we know it.
The sixth-largest moon in the solar system, just smaller than our own, Europa is believed to contain two to three times the volume of all water on Earth, and its global ocean to be 10 times as deep as any terrestrial body of water.
Like the continent, Europa is named for the Greek princess with whom Zeus was enamored. In the guise of a white bull, he enchanted Europa and bore her on his back to the isle of Crete, where she became his queen.
Europa — a beautiful mystery, awaiting our ability to discover it. Perhaps, in eight years, Clipper will arrive like Zeus’ white bull and enchant her into revealing its secrets.
And gradually she lost her fear, and he
Offered his breast for her virgin caresses,
His horns for her to wind with chains of flowers
Until the princess dared to mount his back
Her pet bull’s back, unwitting whom she rode.
Then—slowly, slowly down the broad, dry beach—
First in the shallow waves the great god set
His spurious hooves, then sauntered further out
‘til in the open sea he bore his prize
Fear filled her heart as, gazing back, she saw
The fast receding sands. Her right hand grasped
A horn, the other lent upon his back
Her fluttering tunic floated in the breeze.
— from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”