Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Cracking the Question of Extraterrestrial Life

08.08.2008
Finding current geologic activity on Jupiter's moon Europa would present NASA the best opportunity for exploring the moon's vast ocean trapped beneath its icy exterior where many experts suggest life could exist.

With average temperatures of minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, an almost nonexistent atmosphere and a complex web of cracks in a layer of ice encompassing the entire surface, the environment on Jupiter’s moon Europa is about as alien as they come.

So are the enormous forces behind the surface display, namely an ocean beneath the ice nine times deeper than Earth’s deepest ocean trench and gravitational affects from a planet 318 times the mass of Earth.

For nearly a decade, it has been Simon Kattenhorn’s passion to understand the amazing surface features on Europa and how they are formed. And supported by new grants from NASA, his research may provide clues to one of Mankind’s biggest questions—is there life outside of Earth?

... more about:
»Earth »Extraterrestrial »Jupiter »Saturn’s

Kattenhorn—an associate professor of geology at the University of Idaho—delights in dissecting the beautiful and complex web of cracks, faults and ridges on the surface of Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. The first of his two recent grants totaling $358,000 will allow him to study the most recent geological features on the highest resolution photos NASA has to offer of Europa. These subtle cracks will reveal if there is any current geological activity on the distant moon, which would also be the best place to look for signs of life.

“In order to really get at the issue, ‘Is there life out there?’, we have to know the best place to look,” said Kattenhorn, who is also currently authoring a chapter for a book on the moon. “And in the case of Europa, the best place to look is where cracks on its icy surface are active today.”

But finding signs for current geological activity is no easy task. Kattenhorn can tell a lot about fractures because they form very specific patterns that allow him to unravel their relative ages. His goal in this project is to find the youngest fractures and compare them to the tidal forces that Europa would be experiencing today to see if the features and recent forces match up.

Although there is some debate over how thick Europa’s outer shell of ice is—some say over 20 miles and some claim only a few—it is generally agreed that it covers an ocean more than 60 miles deep. This means that although Europa is only about the size of our moon, it has more water than Earth.

As the moon orbits Jupiter, it gets closer and further from the giant planet, changing the amount of gravitational pull it experiences. The result is that the moon is constantly being squeezed and released like a balloon full of water, which causes cracks and fissures, raising the question of the possibility of geysers, like the ones recently spotted on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Recent photos from the Cassini spacecraft passing by Enceladus revealed stunning plumes of water-ice jetting out into space. The discovery sent a flurry of excitement and activity through the academic community, including Kattenhorn, whose second recent NASA grant will allow him to apply what he’s learned from Europa to studies on Enceladus.

The discovery also led to a renewed vigor to study and explore Europa in order to find out if similar, active processes might be occurring today.

“This research feeds that need that I have as a geologist and as a person to be the explorer, to be the adventurer, to see things that no one else has seen before and figure out things that no one else has figured out before,” said Kattenhorn of his research into the two moons. “And out in the solar system is a great place to do that, because there are some things—like the plumes on Enceladus—that we really are seeing for the very first time.”

Only a few decades ago, nobody would have believed any form of life could exist on or in an icy moon like Europa. But recent discoveries of amazingly adaptive bacteria in some of Earth’s harshest environments have led to the speculation that it is possible.

“Europa has the potential for something very similar to hydrothermal systems we have here in our oceans,” said Susan Childers, head of the geomicrobiology research team at the University of Idaho, who studies life in extreme environments. “Very ancient organisms that thrive on oxidized metals could potentially be centered on one of these oases formed by heat and metals seeping from cracks in the ocean floor.”

The search for extraterrestrial life has long guided NASA’s choices in mission planning. Currently, NASA is in the process of choosing its next flagship mission; the most ambitious, long-term programs that often provide the most data. The choices include sending a satellite to explore Saturn’s moon Titan, Europa or the entire Jupiter system, meaning there is a two in three chance the next major mission will include Europa. This makes research detailing where to look—or maybe even land with a probe — that much more important.

But even if further exploration of Europa wasn’t a possibility, Kattenhorn would still be eager to study the fascinating moon.

“We don’t walk around on Earth with our eyes closed. We want to know what’s going on; why things happen,” said Kattenhorn. “It’s like Galileo looking through his telescope all those centuries ago and going, ‘Gosh! What’s out there?’ It’s that same spirit of exploration and I just get a real kick out of that.”

About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 150 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities.

Ken Kingery | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.uidaho.edu

Further reports about: Earth Extraterrestrial Jupiter Saturn’s

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht APEX takes a glimpse into the heart of darkness
25.05.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie

nachricht First chip-scale broadband optical system that can sense molecules in the mid-IR
24.05.2018 | Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Powerful IT security for the car of the future – research alliance develops new approaches

The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.

Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...

Im Focus: Molecular switch will facilitate the development of pioneering electro-optical devices

A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.

The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...

Im Focus: LZH showcases laser material processing of tomorrow at the LASYS 2018

At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.

At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...

Im Focus: Self-illuminating pixels for a new display generation

There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?

At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...

Im Focus: Explanation for puzzling quantum oscillations has been found

So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics

Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

In focus: Climate adapted plants

25.05.2018 | Event News

Save the date: Forum European Neuroscience – 07-11 July 2018 in Berlin, Germany

02.05.2018 | Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

In focus: Climate adapted plants

25.05.2018 | Event News

Flow probes from the 3D printer

25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering

Less is more? Gene switch for healthy aging found

25.05.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>