Friday, September 04, 2009

Is Jupiter's Bizarre Moon Our Best Hope for Finding Extraterrestrial Life?

The Science Channel show Brink recently produced a segment based on this DISCOVER story; see the video below.

The crackling radiation would kill you in 10 minutes—that is, if you did not first asphyxiate in the nearly nonexistent atmosphere, die of exposure to the –300 degree Fahrenheit temperature, or plunge into a thousand-foot-deep icy crevice. Jupiter’s moon Europa is a forbidding world, yet NASA intends to devote billions of dollars over the next decade to getting there. At the center of this effort will be the most complicated orbital explorer ever built, each of its components carefully armored against the deadly stream of particles in Jupiter’s massive wake. The orbiter will require six years to reach its destination. Then, when it arrives at Europa, engineers will consider the mission successful if it survives for just three months of exploration before shorting out.

This seemingly quixotic effort was conceived by a small but tenacious group of planetary researchers who, after years of trying, convinced budget-strained NASA officials this past February that the wildly expensive venture is a worthwhile, even crucial, investment. They succeeded because Europa—1,940 miles wide, just slightly smaller than Earth’s moon—is such an enticing paradox. Beneath its tortured, icy, and hostile surface lies a vast buried ocean, a warm global sea with perhaps a larger volume than all the water on Earth. And with liquid water comes one of the most intriguing possibilities in all of science:extraterrestrial life.

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