I have seen the future of space exploration, and it looks like a cue ball covered with brown scribbles. I am talking about Europa, the 1,940-mile-wide, nearly white, and exceedingly smooth satellite of Jupiter. It is an enigmatic world that is, in many ways, almost a perfect inversion of Earth. It is also one of the most plausible places to look for alien life. If it strikes you that those two statements sound rather contradictory—why yes, they do. And therein lies the reason why Europa just might be the most important world in the solar system right now. The Europa Clipper spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2023 to probe the mysterious moon, according to NASA’s 2020 budget proposal.
The unearthly aspects of Europa are literally un-earthly : This is an orb sculpted from water ice, not from rock. It has ice tectonics in place of shifting continents, salty ocean in place of mantle, and vapor plumes in place of volcanoes. The surface scribbles may be dirty ocean material that leaked up through the icy equivalent of an earthquake fault.
From a terrestrial perspective, Europa is built all wrong, with its solid crust up top and water down below. From the perspective of alien life, though, that might be a perfectly dandy arrangement. Beneath its frozen crust, Europa holds twice as much liquid water as exists in all of our planet’s oceans combined. Astrobiologists typically flag water as life’s number-one requirement; well, Europa is drowning in it. Just below the ice line, conditions might resemble the environment on the underside of Antarctic ice sheets. At the bottom of its buried ocean, Europa may have an active system of hydrothermal vents. Both of these are vibrant habitats on Earth.
Icy material tends to boil off, producing an exotic kind of weathering that rearranges the landscape without any wind or rain.
Adding a new twist to the story, Europa’s water may sometimes escape its icy confines. On at least four occasions, the Hubble Space Telescope has detected what appear to be large plumes of water vapor erupting from Europa. That detection has confirmed and expanded on the scientific ideas about what makes Europa such a dynamic world. Europa travels in a slightly oval orbit around Jupiter, causing it to get alternately squeezed and stretched by the giant planet’s gravity. The flexing creates intense friction inside the satellite and generates enough heat to maintain a warm ocean beneath Europa’s frozen outer shell. The presence of a plume suggests that the stretching of Europa also opens and closes a network of fissures that allow buried water to erupt as geysers.
If the geysers consist of ocean water shooting all the way through the crust, they could carry traces of aquatic life with them. And if the plumes rise high enough, a future spacecraft could fly right through them, sniffing for biochemicals.
You can see why people were giddy at a 2015 OPAG meeting held at NASA’s Ames Research Center. A regular forum for geeking out about ice worlds, the OPAG gatherings—short for Outer Planet Assessment Group—feel halfway between the corporate swarm of a MacWorld expo and a vinyl record fair. They are where true believers mingle with the newbies, showing off the latest science, kicking around speculative ideas, and developing strategies for exploration. With each new bit of data, they have grown increasingly convinced that Europa, not Mars, is the place to go to search for alien life. Finding the plume on Europa was another shot of adrenaline. The room went fervently silent as Lorenz Roth of Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, calling in via a fuzzy phone line, reported on the latest search for a recurrence of such water eruptions (no luck yet, alas).
Another significant piece of news was hanging over the OPAG meeting: The discovery that Europa has plate tectonics, like Earth and unlike any other world we know of. Tectonics describes a process in which the crust moves about and cycles back and forth into the interior. Louise Prockter of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory co-discovered this style of activity on Europa by painstakingly reconstructing old images from the Galileo spacecraft, which circled Jupiter from 1995 to 2003. (Analysis of other Galileo data suggests the probe flew right past a Europan water plume in 1997, but scientists didn’t realize it at the time.)
As Prockter explained to me at the meeting, a mobile crust potentially does two important things. It cycles surface ice, along with all the compounds it develops during exposure to the sun, down into the dark ocean; that chemical flow could be crucial for supplying the ocean with nutrients. The motion of the crust also brings ocean material up to the surface, where prying human eyes can seek clues about the Europan ocean without actually drilling down into it.
Bolstered by these discoveries, the cult of Europa has now escaped the confines of the OPAG meetings. A successful mission to Europa would bring into focus the incredible ice-and-ocean environment of Europa. It would also help scientists understand ice worlds in general. Icy moons, dwarf planets, and giant asteroids are the norm in the vast outer zone of the solar system, and if they repeat the pattern of Europa they may contain much of the solar system’s habitable real estate. There is good reason to think that ice worlds are similarly abundant around other stars as well. Putting all of these new ideas together suggests that the Milky Way may collectively contain tens of billions of life-friendly iceboxes.
But if these stunning extrapolations seem to suggest that scientists are starting to get a handle on how Europa works, allow me to suggest otherwise. Europa is still largely a big, icy ball of confusion.
A lmost everything we know about the surface of Europa comes from NASA’s Galileo mission, which reached Jupiter in 1995. During its eight-year mission, Galileo mapped most of Europa, but at a crude resolution of about one mile per pixel. For comparison, today’s best Mars images show features as small as three feet. Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle of the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab promises that the camera on NASA’s upcoming Europa probe will achieve a similar level of clarity. Until then, imagine trying to navigate using a map that doesn’t show anything smaller than one mile and you will get a sense of how far the Europa scientists have to go.
What’s more, at a very basic level, planetary scientists still do not have a good handle on how geology (or maybe we should say “glaciology?”) works in frozen settings. Ice, you see, is not just ice. Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the ponytail-wielding mission scientist for the agency’s upcoming Europa probe, spelled out some of the complexities to me. On Europa, surface temperatures on a warm day at the equator might rise up to -210 degrees Fahrenheit; at the poles, the lows plunge to -370 degrees Fahrenheit. Under those conditions, water is properly thought of as a mineral, and ice has approximately the consistency of concrete. In many ways it is remarkably similar to rock in how it fractures, faults, and shatters. But even in such a deep freeze, surface ice can sublimate—evaporate directly from solid to gas—in a way that rock does not. Icy material tends to boil off from darker, warmer regions and collect on lighter, cooler ones, producing an exotic kind of weathering that rearranges the landscape without any wind or rain.
All sorts of other things are happening on the surface of Europa. Jupiter has a huge, potent magnetic field that bombards its satellite with radiation: about 500 rem per day on average, which you can more easily judge as a dose strong enough to make you sick in one hour and to kill you in 24. That radiation quickly breaks down any organic compounds, greatly complicating the search for life, but produces all kinds of other complex chemistry. A lab experiment at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggests that the colors of Europa’s streaks are produced by irradiated ocean salts. These and other fragmented molecules, along with a steady rain of organic material delivered by comet impacts, could be used as energy sources for life when they circulate back down into the ocean, where any living things would be well protected.
If an alien swims in Europa’s ocean and nobody is able to see it, is it really alive?
The movement of Europa’s crust—its icy outer shell—is another broad area of mystery. On ice worlds, Pappalardo notes, water takes on the role of magma and hot rock deep below the surface, but once again ice and rock are not quite the same. Warm ice turns soft, almost slushy, under high pressure and slowly flows. There could be complicated circulation patterns contained entirely within the crust, which is perhaps 10 to 15 miles thick (or maybe more or less; that is yet another mystery that the Europa mission will investigate). Pools of liquid water might exist trapped within the shell, cut off from the underlying ocean. Plumes of water at the surface might not originate directly from the ocean; it is possible that they come from these intermediate lakes, analogous to the largely unexplored Lake Vostok in Antarctica.
At the OPAG meeting, seemingly narrow arguments about the circulation of ice sparked colorful debates about prospects for life on Europa and, by extension, on the myriad other ice worlds out there. Britney Schmidt of Georgia Tech wondered if the active geology (glaciology) on Europa occurs entirely within the crust. If material does not circulate at all between surface and ocean, Europa is sealed tight. Life could not get any fresh chemicals from up above, and if it somehow manages to survive anyway we might never know unless we find a way to dig a hole all the way through. Several researchers at OPAG suggested that meaningful answers will require a surface lander; one energetic audience member repeatedly argued for sending an impactor—a high-speed bowling ball, essentially—to smack the surface and shake loose any possible buried microbes.
As for the Europan ocean itself, that runs even deeper into what you might call aqua incognita . If the surface truly is streaked with salts, as the recent experiments indicate, that suggests a mineral-rich ocean in which waters interact vigorously with a rocky seafloor at the bottom. A likely source of such interaction is a network of hydrothermal vents powered by Europa’s internal heat; such vents could provide chemical energy to sustain Europan life, as they do on Earth. But how much total hydrothermal activity goes on? Are the acidity and salinity conducive to life? How much organic material is down there? The scientists egged each other on with provocative questions that, as yet, have no answers.
When (or if) we will find out will depend, in large part, on how much of Europa’s inner nature is evident from the outside. The conversations at OPAG sometimes devolved into something resembling a college existential argument: If an alien swims in Europa’s ocean and nobody is able to see it, is it really alive?
T he Europa faithful have been waiting a long time for a mission that would wipe away those kinds of arguments, or at least ground them in hard data. That wait has been full of whipsaw swings between optimism and disappointment. NASA’s planned Europa Orbiter got a green light in 1999, only to be cancelled in 2002. The agency rebounded with a proposal for an even more ambitious, nuclear-propelled Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, which looked incredible until it got delayed and finally cancelled in 2006. A proposed joint venture with the European Space Agency never even got that far, though the Europeans are going ahead with their part of the project, which will send a probe to Ganymede, another one of Jupiter’s icy moons, in 2030.
The Europa Clipper, outfitted with scientific instruments that include cameras and spectrometers, will swoop repeatedly past the moon and produce images that determine its composition. There is a chance the Europa mission will include a lander. Funding does not exist yet, but Adam Steltzner—the hearty engineer who figured out how to land the two-ton Curiosity rover safely on Mars—assures me that from a technical standpoint it would not be difficult to design a small probe equipped with rockets to allow a soft touchdown on Europa. There it could drill into the surface and search for possible organic material that has not been degraded by the radiation blasts from Jupiter.
What you won’t see, the OPAG boffins all sadly agreed, is one of those cool Europa submarines that show up on the speculative “future mission concept” NASA web pages. Getting a probe into Lake Vostok right here on Earth has proven a daunting challenge. Drilling through 10 miles or more of Europan ice and exploring an alien ocean by remote control is something we still don’t know how to do, and certainly not with any plausible future NASA budget.
No matter. Even the no-frills version of NASA’s current Europa plan will unleash a flood of information about how ice worlds work, and about how likely they are to support life. If the answers are as exciting as many scientists hope—and as I strongly expect—it will bolster the case for future missions to Titan, Enceladus, and some of Europa’s other beckoning cousins. It will reshape the search for habitable worlds around other stars as well. Right now astronomers are mostly focused on finding other Earthlike planets, but maybe that is not where most of the action is. Perhaps most of the life in the universe is locked away, safe but almost undetectable, beneath shells of ice.
Whether or not Europa is home to alien organisms, it will tell us about the range of what life can be, and where it can be. That one icy moon will help cure science of its rocky-planet chauvinism. Hey, who you calling cue ball?
Corey S. Powell is a contributing editor at American Scientist and at Discover, where he writes the Out There blog. He is also the co-host of the upcoming Science Rules podcast. He tweets actively about all things space and astronomy: @coreyspowell
The lead image is courtesy of Wikipedia.
A slightly different version of this article was originally published in our “Water” issue in June, 2015.