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Europa's surface
An image from NASA’s Galileo orbiter shows Europa’s icy surface, crisscrossed by reddish-brown streaks of radiation-darkened salt. (Credit: NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk)

NASA is gearing up to unveil “surprising evidence” of activity that may be related to the presence of a watery ocean beneath the icy surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

In a media advisory sent out today, the space agency said the evidence comes from the Hubble Space Telescope, in the form of images taken during a “unique Europa observing campaign.”

The findings are to be discussed at 11 a.m. PT (2 p.m. ET) Monday during a live-streamed teleconference involving four participants:

  • Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • William Sparks, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
  • Britney Schmidt, assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
  • Jennifer Wiseman, senior Hubble project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Schmidt was part of a team of researchers who re-examined pictures of Europa that were taken by NASA’s Galileo orbiter more than a decade ago. In 2011, they said dome-shaped features and bumpy patches of ice suggested that “Great Lakes” of liquid water were trapped relatively close to the surface.

The researchers speculated that the lakes would be created by interactions involving the surface ice, a deep ocean of warm briny water, and a rocky mantle even deeper below. Europa’s plate tectonics could provide an assist.

 

The way Schmidt sees it, such activity could provide the energy and chemicals required to sustain life. “I argue that Europa is very much more Earthlike than other places that we think about,” she said during a SETI Institute talk in 2012.

As Monday approaches, it’s virtually certain that we’ll see “Life on Europa?” headlines cropping up. But direct detection of life isn’t in the cards. It’s far more likely that the Hubble imagery will reinforce the surface clues seen in Galileo’s pictures.

Perhaps there’ll even be evidence of geological changes that have occurred since Galileo’s observations – changes that reflect shifts in the water beneath the ice. It wouldn’t be aliens, but it would be surprising. Stay tuned….

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