Europa's Cracks from afar (Image Credit: NASA, University of Arizona)

Of all of the exotic and unusual satellites in our solar system, Europa - a famous moon of Jupiter - might hold the most promise for extraterrestrial life. Partially because Europa is among a small number of moons believed to harbor oceans of liquid water beneath the surface (it might even wind up having more water than Earth). Granted, any water in liquid form would likely be found way, way below the surface, but still yet, where there is water, there is the potential for life.

A New(ish) Look:

Scientists have just released an incredible repurposed image that captures the essence of this strangely-streaked moon, showing the cracks that run along the surface in unprecedented detail. So detailed, in fact, that we can even make out a rust-colored liquid — containing a mixture of hydrated salts and chemicals that include magnesium sulfate or sulfuric acid — seeping from the cracks. They almost look three dimensional. Said ingredients play an integral role in breaking the colorful, but impermeably frozen, ice chunks apart (the bluish slabs, most notably. They are essentially made of nothing but pure water-ice)

(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

The image above covers approximately 101 by 103 miles (163 km by 167 km) of Europa's terrain (or two Manhattan-sized objects) , while being a nice combination of the old and new, as the scientists utilized data collected in the 1990's by the Galileo Spacecraft for the image's foundation. Originally, they used the data to build a large grey-scale map of Europa's surface features seen during a flyby in 1997. It wasn't until very recently that someone got the idea to integrate the color pallet of another image taken the following year — when  the spacecraft was situated merely 89,000 miles (143,000 km) away from Europa's surface — into the original map. The result, as you can see, is an almost-visceral experience to behold.

Astronomers believe (and desperately hope) that the cracks mean Europa is still geologically active in some way. If it did happen to be, it would greatly increase the odds of us finding alien life within the interior of Europa's hard shell. Either way, for as long as our solar system remains intact, the immensely strong gravitational pull of the gargantuan gas giant, Jupiter, will remain a large source of internal activity for this icy world, helping jostle activity from deep within Europa's core.

Its sibling satellites also pull on Europa through tidal interactions (and Europa pulls on them, in turn). As such, it's not all that surprising that Europa isn't the only Galilean moon that harbors a cool  secret. Take Io, for instance: the inner-most Galilean moon. It is home to well over 400 active volcanoes, yet we aren't sure what drives them at this point (other than tidal forces, of course).

Yet another reprocessed photograph of Europa’s diverse surface features (Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)

What the Future Holds For the Exploration of Europa: 

Hopefully we won't have to wait too much longer to start uncovering some of Europa's secrets. Earlier this week, NASA scientists revealed that they have allotted some 25 million dollars of their budget toward the development of a probe intended to explore Europa. This comes just two months after NASA appealed to the public to help them come up with a viable way to break through thick ice that hides Europa's oceans from sight; a task that is further confounded by the fact that we aren't even sure just how far the ice extends.

They will officially choose 20 project proposals, with each receiving a cut of the funding. If any of them prove reasonable technologically, logistically, monetarily and, of course, if it can come to life within the projected time span, it will be developed further. They hope that the probe can be launched come 2020, which means it would arrive on Europa in 2023.

How great would it be to have one of the most meaningful questions ever asked, are we alone in the universe, answered within the next decade?


See additional images here.


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