Thursday, November 17, 2011

Meanwhile, beneath the ice of Europa...




Europa is a moon of Jupiter and it is almost entirely covered with ice.  Recently, astronomers have realized that a body of liquid, salty water equivalent in size to all of the Great Lakes combined, may sit beneath that ice.

Thing about salty, liquid water...it's essential for life to form.  This new data from the Galileo probe gives hope to the theory that micro-organisms might exist in the water beneath the ice.  Or perhaps more?  We don't know and it all is dependent upon what definition of "life" we claim.  Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer himself, points out the significance of this find on Europa at his Discover magazine blog:
"We know that on Earth, water is an essential ingredient for life. And we’ve known Europa has a lot of liquid water! But it’s locked under that thick shell. On the surface, sunlight has helped produce chemicals that are needed for biology, but there’s no way for them to get beneath that ice… or so we thought. The thinner ice above the lakes makes it possible for those chemicals to get below the surface, into the waters below. From there, various processes can get it down into the ocean itself."

What's more, all signs seem to indicate that the reservoir of water is still forming.  Next time we get a look at it (whenever that is) it might actually be larger.  No wonder Arthur C. Clarke chose Europa as a location of life off of Earth.
A little while back, I blogged that artifacts or probes from other civilizations could hide in our sector of space while we would be unlikely to notice.  Let's add something else to that.  Life could exist in places that we wouldn't even believe to be imaginable.  We're finding extremophiles all the time on our very planet, it stands to reason...at least to us bibliophages...that life could exist in similar inhospitable biomes elsewhere in space.  Really, I believe that discoveries like these will force us to redefine what we term as life.  I don't necessarily mean intelligent life, mind you.  I mean just living organisms in general.  

Oddly enough, that does beg yet another question to be asked.  What exactly does "intelligent" life mean?  

Certainly nothing that I've seen on this planet in my lifetime.



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