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Real-life sci-fi scenario: Could Juno find life on Jupiter?

One man thinks the gas giant could be among the most likely places to find life beyond Earth. It sounds crazy, but many of his other predictions have come true.

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NASA's solar-powered Juno spacecraft has arrived at Jupiter. Will it find signs of life?

NASA

When talking about the possibility of alien life, you're more likely to hear about Jupiter's moons Europa or Ganymede rather than the planet itself, with its crushing gravity and sizzling radiation. But now that NASA's Juno spacecraft is in orbit around the gas giant, I'm reminded of the lone person to ever tell me he'd bet on finding life beneath Jupiter's thick clouds.

That's what legendary science fiction author Ben Bova said last year when I posed the "where is E.T.?" question to him following a public reading of some of his latest work.

"It's got all the ingredients, enough room and lots of energy," he told me.

Bova briefly explained his notion of life-forms that might be able to live in the air or in water underneath Jupiter's dense deck of clouds. He referred me to a few of the novels from his "Grand Tour" series, including "Jupiter" and "Leviathans of Jupiter." To be honest, I didn't check them out until Juno began to close in on its destination.

The storyline of the novels revolves around the existence of massive, city-size life-forms called Leviathans living in gigantic oceans that have condensed beneath the clouds of Jupiter.

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Of course, you can find an endless selection of imagined alien life-forms in the canon of science fiction, ranging from the somewhat plausible ("Europa Report") to snarky house cat-craving sitcom stars ("ALF"). One veteran sci-fi author pointing at Jupiter isn't going to change the broader scientific opinion that the planet's environment is so harsh it is an unlikely place to find new life.

But here's the thing about Ben Bova: Over the course of more than five decades of writing about the future of space, science and technology, he's turned out to be shockingly prescient. Bova has correctly predicted a number of things.

In his 1989 novel "Cyberbooks," he foresaw the e-book revolution before the dawn of the modern internet or the Kindle. He wrote about virtual reality in "The Dueling Machine" all the way back in 1969, and he predicted the 1960s space race, finding ice on the moon and the coming discovery of life on Mars. Bova expects life on Mars will probably be something microbial and not nearly as exciting as what could be lurking beneath Jupiter's roiling storms.

Perhaps that's the real rub with Jupiter. It's really difficult for us to go there and investigate, so maybe it's only natural that we presume it would be difficult for anything else to exist there.

Now that Juno has finally arrived at the planet to begin at least 20 months of checking it out on our behalf, perhaps it will detect something that will ultimately lead to another of Bova's imaginative predictions coming true.