One of Jupiter’s moons may be suitable for life. NASA ‘flyby’ will probe icy crust

It’s theorized alien life may exist in the ice-covered oceans of Europa — one of Jupiter’s moons — so questions are piling up in advance of NASA’s intended “flyby” Thursday, Sept. 29.

The Juno spacecraft will pass about 218 miles above Europa’s surface, at a speed of 14.7 miles/23.6 kilometers per second.

That means scientists will have roughly 5 minutes to take as many readings as possible, including the use of a device that will “see into the ice” for the first time.

NASA believes the “rock-hard” shell is up to 15 miles thick and underneath “there is a huge, salty, liquid ocean.”

“Since there are lots of tiny creatures that live in very harsh water environments here on Earth, it’s possible that this type of life could also exist on Europa,” NASA says.

Scott Bolton, principal investigator for the Juno mission, says the team hopes to come away with a better idea of the ice thickness and learn if there are spots where liquid is close to the surface.

“I think the word to use is ‘interrogating’ the ice structure below the surface ... We’re sort of peeling the layers off as we look down, but looking with a broad fuzzy lens,” Bolton told McClatchy News.

“The team is really excited because Juno is equipped with some new types of instruments, and no one knows what we’ll discover.”

Juno is not designed to investigate habitability, so “we won’t see anything crazy like evidence of extraterrestrial life,” he added.

NASA’s Galileo spacecraft was the first to make a Europa flyby back in the ’90s, and among its discoveries were “strange pits and domes that suggest Europa’s ice layer could be slowly be churning.”

Europa has twice as much water as Earth, and this vast ocean has tides “caused by the tremendous gravitational pull of Jupiter,” NASA says. Those tides keep the liquid from completely freezing. The gravitational pull also “creates internal heat” below Europa’s crust, experts say.

As for the surface, temperatures range from minus 210 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 370 degrees at the poles, NASA says.

The Juno instruments were created to probe beneath the cloud tops into the deep atmosphere and interior of Jupiter, which scientists believe holds answers to questions about the origin and evolution of our solar system.

“Europa, of course, deals with a different kind of origin. What’s the origin of life? How does life get started?” Bolton said.

“Everywhere on our planet where there is water, there is life, and many suspect life got started in the ocean.”

Among the discoveries on Jupiter already attributed to the Juno mission:

  • Jupiter has a large fuzzy dilute core. “Prior to Juno, scientists thought the two possibilities were Jupiter had either a small compact core in the center or no core at all. Discovering a large dilute core requires new theories to be considered to explain Jupiter’s formation and evolution,” Bolton said.

  • Jupiter’s deep atmosphere is not well mixed. “Jupiter is basically a giant ball of gas, and its atmosphere has clouds of condensable volatile gases. Jupiter’s atmospheric temperature increases with depth, so once the depth is reached where water or ammonia evaporate, scientists thought that the atmosphere would be well mixed and homogeneous. The discovery that the atmosphere is varying so far below the water condensation level requires new theories to explain how Jupiter’s atmosphere works,” he said.

NASA will learn even more about the moon with a dedicated mission to Europa, launching in 2024.

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