Giant Lake Discovered on Jupiter’s Moon Europa

From National Geographic:

Hidden inside the thick, icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa may be a giant saltwater body equal to the Great Lakes combined, NASA announced today.

Lying about 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) from the surface, the ice-trapped lake may represent the newest potentially habitable environment in the solar system—and one of the best prospects for the search for life beyond Earth.

“For decades scientists have thought Jupiter’s moon Europa was a likely place for life, but now we have specific, exciting regions on the icy moon to focus our future studies,” Don Blankenship, senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics, told National Geographic News…

Similar in size to Earth’s moon, Europa is already thought to house a global, salty ocean beneath its 62-mile-thick (100-kilometer-thick) ice shell. NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which orbited Jupiter and its moons from 1995 to 2003, first discovered evidence of the ocean…

There probably are many more lakes under Europa’s ice, Blankenship added.

Likewise, the prospects for searching for life on Europa could improve dramatically, as research suggests some of these icy lids covering the lakes may be much thinner than thought.

The techniques they used to infer the existence of the lake are the same that they use with satellite imagery of Earth, for example to discover subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

So when will we finally find out if there’s life on Europa? Uh… not any time soon, it seems. NASA planned a mission to specifically check out Europa using a probe called the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO), but that plan was scrapped in 2005. This August, NASA launched a probe called Juno to investigate Jupiter; it will arrive around 2016. Taking more peeks at Europa does not seem to be in its job description, but who knows what it might see?

Fun facts: Juno will travel a total of 1.74 billion miles, or 2.8 billion kilometres. If that’s impossible to imagine, well, it should be. Meanwhile, the farthest probe from Earth is the Voyager 1, at 119 AU (an AU being the average distance from Earth to the sun), or almost 18 billion kilometres away. It was launched in 1977 and is still in communication with Earth. 

This news caught my attention because I was just reading about 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the sequels to that novel are based on there being life on Europa. What else did Arthur C. Clarke know that we don’t?


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