Monday, May 27, 2013

Are Jupiter’s moons our best chance to find alien life?


 We have good reason to believe that some of Jupiter’s moons could have life. A new probe mission aims to head there and find out. 

Opportunity, the older (and smaller) rover cousin of Curiosity made the headlines last week when it discovered more conditions that could have supported life on Mars in its past. But for our best chance of finding life elsewhere in the Solar System, we may need to look beyond the dusty plains, vast mountains and deep canyons of Mars, and travel past the scattered cosmic debris of the asteroid belt. There, in the shadow of the bloated stripy gasbag Jupiter, could be actual living organisms – not the desiccated and irradiated remnants of long dead microbes that scientists hope to find on the red planet.

Jupiter has just under 70 documented moons, the four largest of which are the Galilean moons Io, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa. Io is a fiery world of volcanoes, molten lava and billowing clouds of toxic sulphur; Callisto, an ancient pockmarked body covered in a crust of icy rock. But beneath the vast cracked pancakes of ice on Ganymede and Europa, there are oceans of water. And where there is water, you have the potential for life.

This intriguing possibility has led to the development of a new internationally supported mission to Jupiter’s Moons, Juice, being put together by the European Space Agency. Juice, rather tenuously, stands for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer – an acronym that, I am told by a reliable source, was arrived at after quite a few late-night drinks.

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