Extreme Shrimps & Water Worlds
Black Smoker and extremophiles (credit: NOAA)
The deep oceans are the subject of great environmental and research interest. We live on our own 'water world' but what if there might be another, even more vast, ocean somewhere else? How could it be investigated and how would you know if there was life there? Researchers at Caltech, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and elsewhere have been pondering questions of exobiology. Jupiter's ice-moon Europa has a suspected ocean with more water than exists on Earth. It is an obvious target for the Europa Clipper that will launch this decade. JPL has produced two videos on some of their thinking to look for exobiology.
Extreme Shrimp, (credit: JPL)
What sort of life might be on Europa? Are there organisms here on Earth that might provide analogues to what may exist there? In the depths of the Earth's oceans, where the continental plates collide in complete darkness and extreme pressure, fissures erupt with boiling water containing dissolved gasses, sulfur, and other chemicals that feed life. Entire ecosystems have evolved along these riffs harboring alien-like creatures that may represent the original, first life on Earth. Archaic bacteria, pink tube-worms, and blind shrimp flock around these hydrothermal vents, black smokers, that continuously blast super-heated chemistry. Using deep-diving robots, such extremophiles could offer several Earth analogues to what evolution may have produced on Europa.
The Europa Clipper is designed to enter orbit around that mysterious moon and map its ice covered landscapes. Radar will be used to determine the depth of the ice and the ocean below. The orbiter may carry a robotic lander that would bounce around suitable sites where it might conduct further exploration on the moon itself. It is an ambitious goal.
It will be exciting to follow the adventurous JPL mission as it unfolds. It represents one of the greatest pieces of space engineering and exploration attempted so far. We will be able to watch as the robotic sensors, lights, and cameras capture Europa close-up..