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Is Jupiter's Bizarre Moon Our Best Hope for Finding Extraterrestrial Life?

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Author Topic: Is Jupiter's Bizarre Moon Our Best Hope for Finding Extraterrestrial Life?  (Read 109 times)
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« on: August 30, 2009, 06:12:20 pm »

One of the first orders of business will be to unravel the perplexing mysteries of Europa’s unique topography. It is one of the most geologically bizarre and active? places in the solar system. Unusual cracks—some concentric and resembling spider webs, others forming chains of conjoined arcs—commingle with odd clusters of bowl-shaped craters, strangely configured plateaus, terrain aptly dubbed chaoses, and 2,000-mile-long cracks as straight as Midwest highways. But it is the underlying ocean (and its potential for harboring life) that has sparked the most interest, as well as an unusually bitter debate within the tight-knit and typically collegial field of planetary science. If Europa’s surface is thin and porous like an Arctic ice sheet (as a few vocal researchers assert), then a rich soup of organic chemicals and oxygen from the radiation-soaked surface may have percolated down, seeding the underlying ocean with the essential building blocks of life. But if the shell is thick (most scientists suspect it averages 10 miles or more), there is little chance for contact between surface and sea, and the prospect for living organisms is far smaller.

To most researchers the nature of the ice determines whether Europa really is a plausible home for alien life. Bluntly put, the ice could be either a protective canopy or a killing lid, and the Europa Jupiter System Mission aims to figure out which. “Thick ice does mean it’s harder for life,” Pappalardo says. Then he hedges a bit: “It certainly doesn’t rule it out.” Even if the ice is thick, there may be ways life could have originated and persisted on Europa. For instance, an active, churning mantle below the sea might bubble up heat and chemicals that could serve as the basis for biology. “We don’t know yet how thick the ice is, but I think the surface tells us there’s an interesting geology there,” says Ron Greeley, a planetary geologist at Arizona State University who cochairs Europa’s science definition team.

Patience is a necessity rather than a virtue among planetary scientists. Seeing a mission through from conception to fruition can consume much of a researcher’s career. When Pappalardo began to push for a Europa mission a decade ago, there was no gray in his long ponytail. And even if all goes smoothly, the lanky 45-year-old will be close to retirement age when the first results from Europa traverse the millions of miles between Jupiter and Earth. Time is even more of the essence for Greeley, who by then will be pushing 90. “We do these things not just for ourselves but for our students and their students,” he says. In fact, one of his former students is Pappalardo.
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