Europa and the search for life

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Europa

There is something very interesting about Europa, one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter. It is covered in a layer of ice and has a surface temperature of minus 160 degrees Celsius at the equator (minus 220 degrees Celsius at the poles), but scientists think that under this ice there is liquid water. This layer of ice and water is thought to be between 80 and 170 kilometres thick and also under the ice there are volcanic vents which could provide a thermal environment warm enough to support life, like underwater volcanic vents do on our planet. So this effect of heat from the volcanoes and liquid water could mean that some form of life could exist elsewhere in our Solar System. It might be just bacterial life or possibly something more complex, this is unknown. Scientists are very excited about what could be there. NASA and the European Space Agency are both sending probes in the 2020s to further analyse organic molecules there and probe how thick the ice is.

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From the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact

The prospect that life could be on Europa, or could eventually evolve there, has been the subject in Science Fiction. In 2010: The Year We Make Contact (both a novel and a film) as the Russian and American crew pass by Europa in the Leonov they notice some strange activity there and send a probe to investigate but a mysterious burst of energy destroys the probe before it can find anything. The main character Floyd sees it as a warning to stay away from Europa. His suspicions are confirmed at the end of the film when they are fleeing back towards Earth; Jupiter turns into another sun, and a message is broadcast: “All these worlds are yours, except Europa. Attempt no landing there…” Obviously the aliens, who we never actually meet, have plans for it. Europa Report is Science Fiction/Thriller and in my opinion well worth watching. A manned mission lands on Europa and they find some form of life is there, but it isn’t friendly…

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But what is the prospect that there is actually life on Europa? How easy is it for life to begin? Both those questions can be hard to answer as there is little we can compare it to at this stage. But the chances of life being on other planets or moons in our Solar System or indeed another Solar System is hard to determine.  There are at least two ways you can look at it. One thought is to get the actual right conditions to start life is quite difficult, and therefore planets like our own that are teeming with life are very very rare. If this is the case then that would make our planet almost unique and very precious, and so we should do our best to make sure we don’t do any irreparable damage to it and ourselves as there may be on other place to go. The other thought is that to get life to begin all you need is the right conditions (such as water and warmth) and life will start as a matter of course.  If all you need is water, something we are finding is reasonably plentiful even in our own Solar System, and heat for life to begin then there may be other forms of life in our Solar System and definitely in others. If life is that easy to replicate then maybe life is just another stage in the development of the Universe. Maybe we are all the Universe’s attempt at perceiving itself. Just like the stars forming, organic life evolving could be part of the same process (or maybe it could just be a by-product). But even if there are billions of Earth-like planets out there we should still do our best to protect our own one, as this is where we are from, it is our home, and all the different species here are probably unique to it.

 

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