Europa cross section, displaying potential energy cycles between the ice, the ocean and the rocky interior.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Searching for Life Where the Sun Don’t Shine, part 4: Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa

Posted: 01/31/13
Author: Garret Fitzpatrick

Summary: When the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft visited Jupiter’s moons Io and Europa, scientists were faced with the exciting possibility that these strange worlds might host exotic forms of life.

This is Part 4 of a 6-part series telling 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. It 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 live 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.

Nineteen seventy-seven was the kind of a year that only comes around once every 176 years. That’s how often the outer planets of our solar system (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune… sorry Pluto) line up just right in their orbits around the Sun to allow for a spacecraft to slingshot past all four of them. Rather than wait until 2153, NASA decided to take advantage of the opportunity of ‘77. The space agency launched the twin, 1-ton space probe emissaries, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, from Cape Canaveral in September and August of that year, respectively.

Their mission was only supposed to last for four years, and technically, both spacecraft were only heading to Jupiter and Saturn. Mission designers had planned Voyager 2’s trajectory so it could continue on toward Uranus and Neptune only if Voyager 1 (which launched second but took a faster route) succeeded at Jupiter and Saturn. Fifty-two worlds and 12 years later, the Volkswagen Beetle-sized probes brought new meaning to success in planetary science.

Read more: Searching for Life Where the Sun Don’t Shine, part 4: Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa — Astrobiology Magazine.

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