NASA has announced that data from the Galileo planetary mission has provided the best evidence yet of what appears to be a body of liquid water (the same volume as the North American Great Lakes) beneath the frozen surface of Jupiter‘s moon, Europa.
The information shows there could be a significant exchange between the moons icy outer shell and the possible ocean beneath, which might support earlier suggestions that Europa’s subsurface ocean may offer a habitat for life.
Surface cracks have always hinted at a liquid body of water beneath - Credit: Galileo Project/JPL/NASA
“The data opens up some compelling possibilities,” said Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Program at agency headquarters in Washington. “However, scientists worldwide will want to take a close look at this analysis and review the data before we can fully appreciate the implication of these results.”
The suggestion of a salt water ocean below the surface means it would be deep enough to cover the whole surface of the moon and contain more liquid water than all of the Earth’s oceans put together. However, being far from the Sun means the ocean is locked beneath an icy crust thought to be tens of miles thick.
This announcement is the second NASA has made this year relating to potential liquid water discoveries in our Solar system, after the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter observed suggestions of surface water on Mars.
NASA launched its Galileo spacecraft on the shuttle Atlantis as part of the STS-34 mission in 1989, and it has made numerous discoveries and returned decades worth of data for scientists to analyse.
It was the first spacecraft to directly measure Jupiter’s atmosphere and conduct long-term observations of the Jovian system.
NASA extended the mission three times to take advantage of Galileo’s unique science capabilities, and it was put on a collision course into Jupiter’s atmosphere in September 2003 to eliminate any chance of impacting Europa.
The findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature.
As can often be the case in literature the science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke almost prophesied such a discovery when his fictional character David Bowman (in the novel 2010: Odyssey Two) discovers aquatic life-forms in the deep Europan sea