Giant oceans in space could nurture life

06 December 2011

EUROPA-SURFACE

View of a small region of the thin, disrupted, ice crust in the Conamara region of Jupiter's moon Europa showing the interplay of surface color with ice structures. The white and blue colors outline areas that have been blanketed by a fine dust of ice.

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EuropaA recent discovery of liquid water on Jupiter's moon Europa arouses intrigue in the quest for life in outer space. Lead scientist Britney E. Schmidt from the University of Texas at Austin reported findings in the journal Nature of a body of water the volume of the North American Great Lakes under an ice cap of varying depths on Europa.  The interplay between liquid water and the nutrient rich ice give Europa and its ocean inhabitable qualities.

Researchers used images from Galileo spacecraft of two chaos terrains (circular, bumpy features) on Europa. To explain the creation of these features a model was developed based on processes found on Earth that create similar features in the form of ice shelves and glaciers overlaying volcanoes.

Confirmation of these findings would have to come from ice-probing missions to the chaos terrains on Europa to verify the results from the model because the inferred lakes are several kilometers below the ice surface. Thanks to 20 years of observing ice sheets and floating ice shelves here on Earth, scientists have the chance to understanding more about the processes going on beneath the ice on Europa.

Find out more:

Schmidt et al (2011). Active formation of 'chaos terrain' over shallow subsurface water on Europa.
Nature.

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