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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lake on Jupiter’s moon?

By Lee Ha-na

Scientists now have evidence of a huge lake on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. This body of water, which is about as large as the Great Lakes of North America, is possibly trapped about 3km below the crust. Such evidence is crucial to the scientific community in that it helps determine whether or not the icy moon is capable of harboring life.

Galileo discovered Europa about 400 years ago when he first looked through his telescope into the night sky. Then in the early 1990s, NASA’s Galileo space probe helped astronomers survey what makes up Europa: a rugged core surrounded by deep oceans and topped with cracked ice. But scientists are now analyzing the data from this spacecraft, which has found ice blocks on the moon’s surface that suggest an interaction between the ice and what must be a body of water underneath.

Europa is known for its fractured surface, which scientists believe are caused by floating ice shelves break up and into the water. Researchers have studied the glaciers of Antarctica, which has similar features, so they infer that like-processes are occurring on Jupiter’s satellite.

So then how is it possible for liquid water to exist on this celestial body located nearly a half-billion miles from the sun’s warming rays?

Scientists have long suspected a vast, gigantic ocean that lies under moon’s surface.

According to studies, Europa’s rocky core is frequently bending under the pressure of Jupiter’s gravity and from other larger passerby moons. Such friction produces heat, which keeps the water beneath the ice from completely freezing. But because of the ice topping, cracks form. Images from the space probe show dark, irregular features on the surface, which scientists call “chaos terrain.” They believe warm water from the depths of the large sea rises through the cracks, which form smaller lakes right below the surface. This water weakens the ice, causing gigantic icebergs on the surface to cave in.

This bulging and collapsing process endlessly reshapes and remolds Europa’s fragmented exterior. But this is does not provide enough information to say for sure that life can exist on this moon. Thus, the U.S. and Europe hope to launch new missions to Europa by the end of this decade or in the early 2020s to really solve the mystery of what lies beneath Europa’s “chaotic” surface.

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