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Europa's icy seas may teem with life

No chance of dust devils on Jupiter’s moon of Europa – and, with lows of less than -180 Celcius, no chance of a visitor encountering anything remotely resembling warmth. On the surface, at least.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

That criss-crossed surface may actually cover a deep water ocean, according to NASA. It’s been long theorized that beneath the surface could be liquid water or slushy ice, which leaves the intriguing possibility of crude life actually existing down there.

The idea is, tidal warming could mean the water is warmer than the planet surface, and shielded from Jupiter’s stiff radiation field.

And, as in Earth’s own deep oceans, microbial life could possibly be warming its microbial toes around underwater volcanic vents.

That’s the theory, anyway, and it depends VERY strongly on just how deep and warm that supposed ocean is, and the environment certainly couldn’t support any kind of complex lifeforms. 

So finding out for sure may be a little more complicated than sending an astronaut with a saw, a fishing rod and a lot of patience.

Io gives you a choice between flash-freezing, and burning lava

If you’re wandering around Jupiter’s neighbourhood, and fancy something a bit warmer than mysterious Europa, you can nip on down to Io, another moon that is less mysterious and considerably more terrifying.

Image: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

Image: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

Temperatures down there average around -130C, so it is a little toastier than Europa, but if you skip over to any of those acne-like features, prepare to get WAY toastier.

Because it’s so close to the enormous gravity of nearby Jupiter, the tidal forces on Io are just ridiculous, with parts of the crust being pushed and pulled up and down by around 100 m. Just like tides on earth, only made of solid rock instead of water.

The result of all this friction? An absurd amount of volcanoes, around 400 or so, blasting sulfur into the planet’s thin atmosphere in plumes 300 km high (like the one about 43 seconds into the video below).

Each one burns at around 1650C, so there are lakes of lava and floodplains covered in liquid rock

And if you step away from those hot zones, into the areas where there’s no heat, you might find yourself in ankle-deep sulfur dioxide snowfields.

Image: NASA Planetary Photojournal

Image: NASA Planetary Photojournal

So if you’re annoyed at how cold it is outside, be grateful it’s not Io. As far as weather deprivation goes, it’s hard to beat being flash-frozen AND incinerated, depending on where you’re standing.


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