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Jupiter's Moon Has Enough Oxygen to Sustain Earth-Like Life

| 19 Oct 2009 18:08
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New research into Jupiter's fourth largest moon has revealed that the orbiting body contains enough oxygen to support complex, Earth-like lifeforms.

Though it has long been known that Europa has an oxygen-rich oceanic environment, this latest research indicates that the actual oxygen level found in the moon's copious bodies of water is up to 100 times greater than previously imagined. With oxygen being a key component for life as we know it, this discovery no doubt has scientists imagining adorable Spore-style critters swimming the frigid Europan waves, before running headlong into the cruel wall of reality.

As PhysOrg explains, though this could indicate alien beasts, there are still a number of logical hurdles to surmount before we can start budgeting cash to send teams of Firebats to boil any unfriendly looking lakes.

The global ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa contains about twice the liquid water of all the Earth's oceans combined. The chances for life there have been uncertain, because Europa's ocean lies beneath several miles of ice, which separates it from the production of oxygen at the surface by energetic charged particles (similar to cosmic rays). Without oxygen, life could conceivably exist at hot springs in the ocean floor using exotic metabolic chemistries, based on sulfur or the production of methane. However, it is not certain whether the ocean floor actually would provide the conditions for such life. Therefore a key question has been whether enough oxygen reaches the ocean to support the oxygen-based metabolic process that is most familiar to us. An answer comes from considering the young age of Europa's surface. Its geology and the paucity of impact craters suggests that the top of the ice is continually reformed such that the current surface is only about 50 million years old, roughly 1% of the age of the solar system.

In short, it seems that Europa is an excellent candidate for supporting extraterrestrial life, but realistically speaking, if there are any life forms up there, they are most likely very rudimentary (think: the same sort of single and multi-cellular organisms from which all life on Earth eventually evolved).

It's something of a bummer to realize that all that sweet, sweet oxygen is going to waste on the evolutionary equivalent of Magikarp, but it's also probably for the best. If Europa was home to Giger-esque living nightmares, it would only be a matter of time before we were all impregnated by ropey little spider creatures with absolutely no regard for our collective upper gastronomic tracts.

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