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Life On Europa

In early 2012, NASA announced that they may be planning to send a robot submarine to the oceans of Europa to discover if the lunar object contains extraterrestrial life.

Europa is one of the largest of Jupiter’s 63 known moons, and is part of the four “Galilean Satellites”. The unfortunate news is that NASA’s decreased planetary research budget of $1.2 Billion, set by President Obama, isn’t enough to cover the costs of this endeavor.

Steve Squyres, lead scientist for NASA’s Opportunity rover, places this venture at the top of his wish list, and believes it will receive the green light in the future. A multitude of planetary scientists regard Europa as one of our solar system’s best locations for life outside of Earth. Their optimism stems from the discovery of what appears to be a huge ocean of water beneath the moon’s surface.

According to researchers, Europe likely contains both liquid water and an energy source, such as hydrothermal vents from the seafloor, just like the Earth. “You do the calculations for Europa, and what you find is that there ought to be hydrothermal activity; there ought to be volcanic activity at Europa’s seafloor.” said Squyres.

The distant moon, first discovered by Galileo in 1610, has a surface temperature of -260 degrees Fahrenheit, which counts out the possibility of human colonization. But scientists believe there may be a thriving ecosystem of bacteria and other micro-organisms underneath Europa’s surface.

One of the mission’s challenges is discovering a way to break through the moon’s icy crust. The robotic surface rover would need to potentially cut through 10km of ice, and then release the submarine. Fortunately for NASA, the U.S National Research Council’s Decadel Survey places the Europa mission as a #2 priority, right behind a Mars sample retrieval mission. This means that with a larger budget, or re-allocation of current funds, NASA may be on the fast track to physically visiting a third cosmic body.

“This is the holy grail of planetary exploration right here.” – Steve Squyres.


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