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Life on...Europa?

August 13, 1996
Web posted at: 8:30 p.m. EDT

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- New data gathered by the Galileo space probe indicate there may be water on one of Jupiter's moons, raising the possibility it could support a primitive life form, scientists said Tuesday.

Running water may have existed and may still exist beneath the cracked ice crust of the surface of the moon Europa, according to scientists who explained the latest images sent back by Galileo.

Ice on Europa

"What we're really looking for are niches that would be favorable for life, and that's a really important distinction from looking for active life forms today," Galileo imaging team scientist Ronald Greeley said.

The photographs showed long, crisscrossed cracks in the icy surface of Europa, which is about the size of Earth's moon. The images, taken from about 95,000 miles away, are much clearer than those sent back by Voyager 17 years ago, but still omit details that leave scientists with many questions.

movie icon NASA animation of Europa's surface
NASA animation of Galileo flyby of Europa

The announcement about Europa's possible water comes less than a week after NASA reported that scientists found evidence of bacteria-sized organisms in a Martian meteorite. They said that could mean life existed on Mars some 3.6 billion years ago.

Io, another moon of Jupiter

"The pictures (of Europa) are exciting and compelling, but not conclusive," NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said at Tuesday's news conference at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But he said the discovery of liquid on the moon would be significant.

"It raises the possibility of a liquid ocean on Europa -- the only other place in our solar system where we suspect such an ocean might exist," Goldin said.

Galileo also sent back pictures showing a blue volcanic plume on another of Jupiter's moons called Io. Comparisons with photos from Voyager show changes in Io's surface that indicate significant turbulence.

massive storm on Jupiter

New photos of Jupiter's large red spot also indicate its cause. Computer imaging shows it to be a huge hurricane, with counterclockwise winds of 250 miles an hour.

Galileo, launched in 1989, traveled 400 million miles to reach Jupiter's atmosphere last December.

Correspondent Jim Hill and Reuters contributed to this report.


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