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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pictures Spawn Theories of Life on Jupiter Moon

PASADENA, California -- "Mind-blowing pictures'' of large icebergs on the surface of Jupiter's frozen moon Europa are tantalizing scientists with the possibility they've found evidence of a dynamic ocean which could have spawned life at some point.


The pictures, taken by the unmanned Galileo spacecraft during a Feb. 20 fly-by, have scientists more eager than ever to explore the icy moon's interior.


Their enthusiasm was palpable Wednesday as the images, including an animated video, were released at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


"It looks as though we found the smoking gun that points at this subsurface ocean,'' said Michael Carr, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.


"These are really mind-blowing pictures,'' said Richard Terrile, an astronomer at JPL. "There is very strong evidence that there is an ocean here.''


The pictures of icy chunks scattered like pottery shards provide "the clearest evidence to date there is liquid water and melting close to the surface of Europa,'' said Torrence Johnson, the Galileo project scientist at JPL.


But, Johnson cautioned "we have no evidence directly bearing on life.''


Carr said the icy blocks, each about 3 to 6 kilometers across and resembling icebergs seen at the poles here on Earth, appeared to have drifted apart. "You can push them back together to reconstruct the original pattern,'' he said.


Their movement adds weight to the notion that a relatively warm watery or slushy layer underlies a frozen crust that could be up to 95 kilometers thick.


In the 30-kilometer-by-40-kilometer Europa snapshot, the ice probably is slightly more than 1 1/2 kilometers thick, said Paul Geissler, a University of Arizona planetary scientist.


The ice surface is also relatively young, at about 1 million years, said Clark Chapman, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.


Oceanographer John Delaney of the University of Washington said the water on Europa is probably rich in salt and other dissolved chemicals from millennia of interaction with rocks and was spiked by incoming comets with the organic molecules necessary for life.


Asked if the watery soup could hold life, Terrile said: "The water's probably bouillon, but we don't know if it's chicken soup.''


While the news conference was taking place, an international group of scientists was meeting across town to discuss a proposed ice-penetrating robotic craft that might be able to explore Europa. They plan to test the cryobot first at Lake Vostok, a freshwater lake beneath the ice of Antarctica.


Asked if the latest pictures were enough to convince him there's life on Europa, Delaney gave two answers.


Speaking as a scientist, he said NASA and oceanographers could design experiments to answer the question.


Then, speaking from his heart, he said: "I'm sure there's life.''