NASA is planning on sending a probe to Jupiter's moon Europa to find evidence of alien life.
Europa's surface is, well, hellish. It is completely exposed to space, and it is frequently lashed by radiation from Jupiter. It's hard to imagine that life might thrive on the inhospitable surface of this moon. That's why NASA isn't looking on the surface. If there is alien life on Europa, NASA is going to have to dig deeper.
So why does NASA think that there's life on Europa? The short answer is this: water. Scientists postulate that there are oceans underneath Europa's ice shell in which life can thrive. There's also a possibility that these oceans have hydrothermal vents.
When radiation from Jupiter hits the ice on Europa's surface, it pulls the water molecules in the ice apart. The water molecules separate into hydrogen and OH molecules. The OH molecules eventually come together to form hydrogen peroxide. When hydrogen peroxide molecules on the surface decay, the oxygen and hydrogen molecules separate. NASA scientists think that it's possible that the oxygen molecules oxygenate the oceans under Europa's surface. There may even have been enough oxygenation for the waters to support multi-cellular life.
Yes, multi-cellular life, unlike on Mars, where the possible alien life under the surface is most likely in the form of simple organisms.
There's also a possibility that these oceans have hydrothermal vents, much like oceans of Earth. Back here on Earth, hydrothermal vents supported the planet's earliest life forms. If you're not keeping score at home, let's check the scoreboard. Europa has oxygen, water, and possibly hydrothermal vents. All these are vital components in the formation of life on Earth. Scientists are excited by the possibility of finally finding alien life, but first, they'd have to actually study Europa itself.
Speculation about all the possibilities is exciting. However, there won't be any hard proof until NASA manages to land a probe on the surface of Europa. It's an expensive and somewhat complicated mission. The mission's objectives, however, are straightforward. First, the probe will analyze Europa's surface and subsurface for signs of life. Second, the probe will analyze the surface's non-ice material and find out how far liquid water is from the surface. Third, the probe will find out what shaped the surface and subsurface.
The mission to Europa is actually two missions. The first one is a flyby mission by the spacecraft Europa Clipper. Clipper will scout for a suitable landing location for the landing mission so NASA won't be “flying blind”. Clipper will launch sometime in the 2020s. and is now in the design phase.
The next mission is actually landing a probe on the surface. For now, though, NASA is focusing on the flyby mission. It's definitely quite an exciting time, but unfortunately we won't see Clipper's launch for a few years yet. There are a couple of phases still to go before launch. When Clipper is ready, though, the world will surely be watching and waiting for word.
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