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Is ice on Jupiter's moon a sign of life?


New Galileo images best yet of Europa

April 9, 1997
Web posted at: 11:09 p.m. EDT (0309 GMT)

Pasadena, California (CNN) -- New images of Jupiter's moon Europa that show an icy surface riddled with cracks and fissures provide tantalizing clues that water may exist there, according to NASA scientists.

The pictures, taken by the Galileo spacecraft during a fly-by on February 20 and released Wednesday, also suggest there may have been volcanic activity on Europa.

Scientists studying these pictures and others taken during previous missions said Europa may have a liquid ocean beneath its icy crust.

If there is water on Europa, and if there is volcanic activity, the scientists say conditions may be right for the creation of life and an environment where it could exist.

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The patterns of cracks in the ice indicate movement of the sheets of ice, and the migration of large chunks or blocks of ice suggest that volcanic activity may be under way as well, they said.

NASA stressed that there was no direct evidence indicating there is or ever has been life on Europa.

Scientists seek more detailed data

University of Arizona scientist Paul Geissler, who spoke on a panel at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where the images were released, said Galileo provided researchers with "strong indirect" evidence that water and volcanic activity are present.

Researchers have found primative life forms on Earth inside geothermal vents deep in the ocean. Scientists theorize that a similar type of life form could exist on Europa, if water and a geothermal energy source are present.

Galileo is not equipped with the right instruments to detect whether such life exists on Europa. Scientists have proposed sending a probe there that could find this kind of life, but NASA has not allocated money to pay for the project.

Geissler said even if NASA acted immediately to design, build and launch such a probe, it would be at least a decade before it could begin to look for life on Europa.


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