Jupiter's moon Europa may harbor life below its frozen surface. Image: NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr/CC BY

A new analysis of data concerning one of Jupiter’s moons is leading some scientists to speculate that a lake may exist below the frozen surface. The speculation opens the possibility for life on the celestial body.

‘Chaos terrains’

Scientists have long believed that the Jovian moon Europa has an ocean larger than any on the Earth but that the surface temperature ensures its being frozen tens of miles thick. That would preclude the chance for any life existing on the natural satellite. But a new analysis of “chaos terrains” photographed by NASA’s Galileo space probe in the 1990s are leading some scientists to rethink that conjecture.

The so-called “chaos terrains” are areas of dark, bumpy, irregular features on the surface of Europa. Scientist Britney Schmidt, of the University of Texas at Austin, led a new study of the Galileo data that was published in the journal Nature. She says these areas may suggest a subsurface lake active enough to warm and break up the surface ice.

In the 1990s, scientists studying the data from Galileo found the evidence of a vast frozen ocean on Europa. However, they speculated, for life to exist under that ice, organic compounds from the surface would have to find a way of reaching the water trapped below the ice.

Lake could conduct surface materials

Schmidt and her team have speculated that these lakes, if they exist, could provide a habitat for some form of life. Or, they could act as a conduit for surface compounds to sustain life in the deeper ocean below the heavy layer of ice.

Schmidt said in a  statement:

“One opinion in the scientific community has been if the ice shell is thick, that’s bad for biology. That might mean the surface isn’t communicating with the underlying ocean. Now, we see evidence that it’s a thick ice shell that can mix vigorously and new evidence for giant shallow lakes. That could make Europa and its ocean more habitable.”

Schmidt said that the warming to create these lakes could come from glacier-covered volcanoes, like those that exist in Iceland.

Subsurface lakes in Antarctica

Schmidt came up with the theory after a trip to Antarctica, which has many, many subsurface lakes. Scientists believe they may be the home for unique lifeforms.

To test the theory, Schmidt and her team would like to test the possibility by sending another probe to Europa to peer beneath its frozen surface with radar.


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