Under alien ice

By | Science & Technology
NASA's clipper probe over Jupiter's moon Europa. Credit@kevingillviaflickr.com

Is there life elsewhere in the universe? This is a question which has inspired generations of imaginations as they gaze into the hypnotic night’s sky. Studying life on earth in the most surprising of places has filled scientists with confidence that organisms might equally thrive on other planets. Bacteria, for instance, may flourish in the presence of extreme heat at the bottom of the ocean with no sunlight. It may be expected then that one of Jupiter’s 67 moons could well home extra-terrestrial life. Discovered in 1610 by Galileo Galilei, Europa has fired the minds of astronomers as they wonder what treasures might be hiding under the moon’s icy exterior. As technology develops and funding increases scientists are getting closer to discovering the answers.

What makes scientists believe Europa may harbour alien organisms? There are a number of indicators. At the end of 2013 researchers noted plumes of water vapour escaping from Europa’s surface. This is a fascinating sign of activity hiding in an ocean just under the ice. Clay like materials were also recorded which are usually associated as a by-product of living material. The ocean might be kept liquid by high gravity and a process known as tidal flexing which may drive geological process and an energy source for life. Photographs from the 1979 voyager showed very few crater impacts, providing evidence that the icy surface is recycled due to tectonic activity. By studying life on earth scientists know that life may live without sunlight, using molecules such as hydrogen sulphide as an energy source. It is thought that hydrogen peroxide is common on Europa, which might supply simple life forms with a source of energy.

With all this mounting evidence NASA is eager to explore Europa. Earlier this month NASA called for the development of scientific instruments to help achieve a mission to Europa following $15 million grant from president Obama. New Scientist recently reported from the Matanuska glacier in Alaska where testing of such technology is underway. The probe, named VALKYRIE, will drill into the icy depths of Europa in an attempt to reveal its secrets. The VALKYRIE project, headed by engineer Bill Stone, is making promising progress as the team are learning how to improve its design. VALKYRIE will use a nuclear power source as the ice is likely too thick for solar energy to penetrate. The robot will heat water and fire hot jets out at the ice causing it to melt and the probe to move towards the suspected ocean below. Once it reaches the water it will release smaller robots, named Sunfish, which will investigate and map the mysterious depths below. The team will continue to test and readjust VALKYRIE until they can be sure it is perfectly adapted to the job.

Whilst the machinery is making progress NASA’s test flight in 2017 could help to improve travel time to Jupiter from 6 to 2 years. When this speedier transport is ready the first trip to Europa will scout the surface to see how thick the ice is and where the most suitable landing sites are. The second trip to Jupiter’s moon will launch the completed VALKYRIE to these designated sites. Scientists believe that the first trip will take place around 2022.

Will bacteria be found or more highly developed organisms such as fish as some researchers ponder? How would this life differ from earth? What is the structure of their habitat? There are many questions fuelling the passion to find answers as to what lies under the ice of Europa. The development of technology, such as VALKYRIE, will one day satisfy this desire for knowledge. For now scientists can allow their imaginations and scientific hypotheses to run free with ideas.

How might the discovery of extra-terrestrial organisms change scientific perception of life?

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