Brad Dalton, a planetary geologist with the Ames Research Center, thinks bacteria could account for the odd light emissions, as well as the reddish hue, coming from Jupiter?s moon Europa. He used data collected from the Galileo spacecraft to find matches between chemical signatures of bacteria on Earth and unexplained infrared readings from Europa.

Analyzing infrared light can provide clues to the chemicals that the light has passed through and infrared readings of Europa indicate that the discolored patches contain water bound to some other material. Most scientists think this material is sulphur compounds, such as magnesium salts, which could have formed from geochemical reactions, or sulfuric acid created by radiation interacting with the surface.

Dalton wanted to demonstrate that the bound-water could be explained by other scenarios, and asked the U.S. Geological Survey for spectral data of earthly organisms. ?As a joke, I just wanted to look at some algae,? he says. ?I wanted to study it a little farther and laugh about it.? But the similarities he found were so intriguing that he approached colleagues at Ames to get some samples of sulphur-metabolizing bacteria, the kind that might be able to exist in Europa?s ocean. Dalton studied the samples frozen, to mimic conditions on the frigid moon.

He obtained infrared spectra from strains of bacteria that might survive in the interior of Europa, where an ocean is believed to be hidden under the moon?s icy crust. The bacteria are pinkish brown, which could account for the still-unexplained patches of red on Europa?s surface.

Dalton?s work shows that the observations on Europa can be mimicked by some biological materials, says Ted Roush, of the National Research Council. ?I don?t believe this as being an indication of life on Europa, but it is intriguing what Brad is showing. We know that something on the surface is tremendously hydrated,? he says.

?I?m definitely thinking out of the box here and I?m taking a lot of heat, but that?s OK,? says Dalton. ?If we find a better explanation, I?ll be the first to say, ?Well, that was interesting.??

To learn more, read “Dark Matter, Missing Planets and New Comets” by Tom Van Flandern,click here.

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