NASA scientists say icy moon Europa may be best spot to check for alien life

A new model suggests Europa's hidden ocean could be very lively.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
2 min read

Jupiter's moon Europa is covered in smooth ice concealing a salty sea. At certain spots the hidden ocean erupts through cracks in the ice that would make Old Faithful look like a backyard sprinkler. 


Swimming could turn out to be the most common way of getting around in our solar system. 

NASA researchers say new modeling shows the interior ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa should be able to support life. It's long been suspected that the waters of Europa, which lie beneath its icy shell and are heated by tidal motion or some element of the moon's subsurface geology, might be habitable.

The underrated 2013 indie flick Europa Report even investigates the concept. 

In this latest research, scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory used data from the Galileo mission to model the composition and other physical characteristics of Europa's hidden layers, including its subsurface ocean. They found that the world's waters may not be as acidic as previously thought.

"Our simulations, coupled with data from the Hubble Space Telescope,showing chloride on Europa's surface, suggests that the water most likely became chloride rich," lead researcher Mohit Melwani Daswani explained in a release. "In other words, its composition became more like oceans on Earth. We believe that this ocean could be quite habitable for life."

The research, presented Wednesday at the virtual Goldschmidt geochemistry conference, has yet to be peer-reviewed. 

Best places in space to search for alien life

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Europa may not be the only wet and wild world in our neighborhood. At least two other major moons of Jupiter -- Callisto and Ganymede -- have ocean layers. Saturn moon Enceladus also harbors a hidden sea and complex organic compounds that are among the building blocks of life have been detected in its waters.

"Certainly interesting chemistry takes place within these bodies," says University of Colorado geology professor Steve Mojzsis, who was not involved in the work, "but what reliable flow of electrons could be used by alien life to power itself in the cold, dark depths? A key aspect that makes a world 'habitable' is an intrinsic ability to maintain these chemical disequilibria. Arguably, icy moons lack this ability, so this needs to be tested on any future mission to Europa."

Fortunately, just such a mission is coming up soon.

"Europa is one of our best chances of finding life in our solar system," Daswani says. "NASA's Europa Clipper mission will launch in the next few years, and so our work aims to prepare for the mission, which will investigate Europa's habitability."