Finding life in a hopeless place: Europa

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By: Matt Pertoff

When we look into the night sky, we find ourselves wondering if there is other
life out there. Since humanity’s earliest days we have been plagued by this question. We have been searching and listening for life far and wide in the universe for quite some time now and have yet to find anything. This story begins with a discovery made in the year 1610 AD by Galileo. Circling the planet Jupiter he found a small moon, which soon came to be known as Europa. You may be asking yourself; what is so significant about a small moon that orbits a distant planet? Well, in our quest to find life elsewhere in the universe, it may in fact be right on our own doorstep.
Since Europa’s discovery, the majority of what we knew had come from ground-based telescopes. However, starting in the 1970s satellites were able to start doing fly-by missions and collect valuable data on the very mysterious interstellar body. Missions such as the Pioneer 10 and Voyager 1 & 2 were able to capture images and do a number of other tests. To this day almost everything we know about Europa has come from NASA missions.
These satellites gave us more questions than answers, it seemed.  From the images and other tests they were able to theorize on a few things. One thing that they noticed was how relatively flat the surface was and these cracks that seem to run across the surface. It was odd because the surface seemed to resemble sea ice found on Earth. This led to the theory that there may in fact be a vast ocean underneath the ice of Europa and possibly support life.
The more recent spacecraft, Galileo, also supported this. Furthermore, the relatively flat surface with very few craters led them to believe that the planet may be geologically active in some sort. In other words, Europa may have the same forces at work as our planet does below the surface. Now, a notable characteristic of geologically active bodies is volcanism. Because of this, it was also theorized there may also be hydrothermal sea vents on the floor of the ocean. The most recent of these theories suggest the oceans may not support any life at all. They believe this because certain chemicals found on the surface of the ice may react with the chemicals found in the ocean water thus creating water that is acidic to support life.
We have learned that life is possible in the most hostile of environments. Places on earth that we thought life could not exist, it thrives. As stated on Fox News, NASA found life flourishing at Mono Lake in California, where microorganisms were using arsenic to live. On the ocean floor, where hydrothermal vents are located, the water is hundreds of degrees in temperature and it is completely void of light. However, we once again found life flourishing. An article was recently written in The Tartan on Lake Vostok in Antarctica. The findings from Lake Vostok and/or the sister lakes currently being explored by the British and American teams will be released later this year or early next year. What is found in these sub-glacial lakes will be the largest and most plausible explanation of what may be found on Europa in my opinion.
As you can see, much can be theorized about Europa, however, it is hard to infer any concrete evidence. This is mainly because there has never been a probe or satellite sent specifically to Europa for long-term study. There are missions set now to go to Europa in the 2020s but there are always issues such as budget constraints that could block it further down the road.  As stated by Space.com, the United States, European Union, and Russia all have basic plans for such a trip. In the current condition of the United States space program it is very uncertain what will happen. We recently cut down the idea of going to Mars due to the budget constraints, at least for now. I’ll stick my neck out and say the European Union probably won’t be doing anything that ambitious without us either. The only one left is Russia but their recent string of failures with their space program and lack of state-of-the-art R&D make them sound not too promising.
Europa is complex. There are many variables that could affect if there is or isn’t life there. However, I think there is life of some sort, either it be complex or microbial. As we have seen on Earth life can be found in places we thought were inhospitable. These places we thought were inhospitable show how unpredictable life can be and the rough environments it can thrive in. Life evolved on Earth in some of the harshest conditions imaginable so it is only logical that if similar conditions are present, life should take hold and endure.
Email:mpetroff@radford.edu

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