In a finding of significance in the search for life beyond Earth, scientists have discovered what appears to be a body of liquid water the volume of the North American Great Lakes locked inside the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa–which could represent a new potential habitat for life.
The researchers predict that many more such lakes exist throughout the shallow regions of Europa’s shell, further increasing the potential for life. Many of these lakes are covered by floating ice shelves that seem to be collapsing, providing a mechanism for transferring nutrients and energy between the surface and a vast ocean already thought to exist below the thick ice shell.
Physicist Wes Patterson says, "The potential for exchange of material between the surface and subsurface is a big key for astrobiology. Europa’s subsurface harbors much of what we believe is necessary for life but chemical nutrients found at the surface are likely vital for driving biology."
Researcher Britney Schmidt says, "One opinion in the scientific community has been, ‘If the ice shell is thick, that’s bad for biology–that it might mean the surface isn’t communicating with the underlying ocean. Now we see evidence that it’s a thick ice shell that can mix vigorously, and new evidence for giant shallow lakes. That could make Europa and its ocean more habitable."
Planetary scientist Louise Prockter agrees and says, “If we’re ever to send a landed mission to Europa, these areas would be great places to study.”
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