Complex and beautiful patterns adorn the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, as seen in this color image intended to approximate how the satellite might appear to the human eye. The data used to create this view were acquired by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1995 and 1998. CREDIT: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

Built as the world’s first deep-ocean submersible, Alvin has made more than 4,200 dives and can reach 63 percent of the global ocean floor (reaching depths of 14,764 feet/4,500 meters).CREDIT: Mark Spear, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Exploring Earth’s Oceans May Aid Life Search on Jupiter Moon Europa

Garret Fitzpatrick, Astrobiology Magazine
Date: 14 January 2013 Time: 07:07 PM ET

This is Part 1 of a six-part series that tells the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life, by looking for it in extreme environments where life thrives without relying on the sun as an energy source.

This series follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise, led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. By understanding how life can survive without the sun, we may discover how life began on our planet, and whether or not Earth is the only place in the universe capable of supporting a biosphere.

On Feb. 17, 1977, Tjeerd van Andel of Stanford University and Jack Corliss of Oregon State took a few last breaths of the South Pacific air before closing the basketball-hoop-size hatch of the research submersible, Alvin.

Their pilot, Jack Donnelly, then guided the 23-foot-long (7 meters) craft down 9,000 feet (2,740 m) toward the seafloor, away from the team’s research vessel Knorrand mother ship, Lulu. Ninety minutes later, the trio reached the bottom.

Six hours and 47 minutes later, they were back at the surface. When the science team extracted the first water samples taken from the seafloor, the entire lab on the Knorr was filled with a horrible stench: rotten eggs.

As terrible as this smell was, the discovery of hydrogen sulfide on the seafloor was a watershed moment in humankind’s understanding of the origins of life. [7 Theories on the Origin of Life]

Six months later, on Aug. 20, 1977, NASA’s Voyager 2probe launched into space aboard a Titan IIIE/Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The spacecraft sent back its first photos of Jupiter after 20 months in transit to the gas giant and after another 2 1/2 months, it flew to within about 125,000 miles (200,000 km) of Europa — one of Jupiter’s 64 known moons.

As raw images beamed back to Earth at a rate of one every 90 seconds, scientists, engineers, students and journalists sat glued to their seats staring at stunning images that revealed a white, icy world, criss-crossed with dark lines and a surface seemingly as smooth as anything thus far seen in our solar system.

Images and data received from Voyager 2 suggested that beneath that layer of water ice lies a liquid water ocean bigger than all of Earth’s oceans combined covering the entire moon — which is itself about the same size as our own moon.

Soon researchers began to wonder if, beneath that layer of ice at the bottom of thousands of feet of water and methane liquid, the seafloor of Europa smells like rotten eggs, too.

Read more: Exploring Earth's Oceans May Aid Life Search on Jupiter Moon Europa | Space.

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