Since the years of NASA’s Voyager and Galileo missions, scientists have debated the possible compositions of Europa’s surface and subsurface materials. The spectrometer aboard the Galileo spacecraft was not capable of providing the detail needed for identifying surface materials. It was beginning to look like Europa’s composition would remain a mystery until a new mission was on its way… but that thinking has changed.
A new paper by Mike Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, and Kevin Hand from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, details the strongest evidence yet discovered explaining both the composition and movement of Europa’s vast ocean. From approximately 400 million miles away, the Keck II Telescope fitted with a special infrared integral field spectrograph (OSIRIS), helped create a map of the distribution of pure water ice versus anything else. Later on, they found a tiny dip in the spectrum that had never been detected before. Both Brown and Hand were unsure of the material this spectrum represented. “We tried to think outside of the box to consider all sorts of other possibilities, but at the end of the day, the magnesium sulfate persisted,” Hand says.
Hand and Brown were able to conclude that the composition of Europa’s ocean may closely resemble the salty oceans of Earth. “If we’ve learned anything about life on earth, it’s that where there’s liquid water, there’s generally life,” Hand said. “And of course our ocean is a nice, salty ocean. Perhaps Europa’s salty ocean is also a wonderful place for life.”
Europa is the only other place in the Solar System, aside from Earth, for which there is strong evidence suggesting the present-day existence of life. Life as we know it requires three basic “ingredients”: liquid water, an energy source, and organic compounds. If the chances of finding life on Europa are far greater than on any other place in our solar system, why aren’t we choosing to visit it? This is not to say that exploring other planets is unimportant. In fact, we need to diversify our interests when it comes to planetary exploration. NASA needs to know we are behind them in the risks they take. Doubling NASA’s budget would certainly send a message.
Europa has long been considered a premier target in the search for life beyond Earth. NASA has long been interested in exploring Europa. In fact, there have been a few different mission proposals made just over the last few years….
Write to congress and tell them to double NASA’s budget: www.penny4nasa.org