Nasa looks for life on Jupiter moon

THE AMERICAN space agency is to search for life under the frozen ocean of Europa, a moon of Jupiter that could be the most likely place in the solar system for the evolution of extra- terrestrial lifeforms.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is finalising plans to send a small but sophisticated probe to see if there is liquid water - and possibly life - under the frozen surface of the fourth largest Jovian satellite.

In the week that scientists announced there is less water than they had thought on Mars - and what little there is exists as ice - space explorers are turning their sights on Europa as the place best suited for life beyond our planet.

Christopher Chyba, Professor of geological and environmental studies at Stanford University, said the presence of liquid water under the frozen surface of Europa would greatly increase the chances of finding life. "We don't know yet whether there really is a subsurface ocean on Europa, but it's looking more and more likely. If there is an ocean, the exciting question will be whether it contains life," he said.

Nasa is expected to announce next month the details of the instruments it will place on a small, 20kg (44lb) spacecraft that will be launched in 2003 to orbit Europa to look for signs of liquid water.

"Over the past 10 years on Earth we've learnt that there is a deep terrestrial biosphere, a world of micro-organisms that lives beneath our feet in the subsurface," Professor Chyba told a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. "This discovery makes it seem possible that a place like Europa could harbour life of its own."

The Europa Orbiter mission will carry an altimeter, designed to detect any tidal increase in the height of the moon's frozen surface. If the mission is successful, a second probe would be sent to land and melt through the thick ice and send a robot submarine to explore the watery world beneath.

Images of Europa captured by the Galileo spacecraft in 1996 indicated that the moon's surface is like a cracked snooker ball. The ice had broken up and shifted round like jigsaw pieces, suggesting that these icebergs must be lubricated by warm water below.

Professor Chyba said the Orbiter's altimeter could settle the issue of whether there is liquid water under the ice but a second instrument, a ground-penetrating radar, would help to determine whether there is one large subsurface ocean, or a number of discontinuous seas. "If the orbiter confirms that Europa has a liquid ocean, then it will become one of the hottest places in the solar system to search for life," he said.

Europa's surface temperatures hover around minus 160C. Although the cold could freeze the Europan ocean solid,scientists believe friction caused by a tug of gravitational forces between Jupiter and its 12 moons could keep the subsurface water liquid.

There is also the possibility that Europa has hot underwater vents, spweing out mineral-rich deposits that could act as an energy source for life- forms to evolve, in much the same water that some life-forms on Earth thrive around vents on the deep seabed.

Tomorrow in the Friday Review: Destination Europa

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?