Berkeley -- While NASA and the European Space Agency focus on Mars rovers and future missions to search for life on the Red Planet, a determined core of scientists is lobbying for equal attention to a place they feel is just as likely to harbor life Jupiter's icy moon Europa.
"Because of the well-supported presence of water ice on Europa and the probability that there are briny oceans, Europa has to be a major target for the search for life in the solar system," said paleobiologist Jere H. Lipps, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. "Many of us are proposing that there is habitat there where we can expect to find evidence of life."
Lipps took up the issue with three other scientists on a panel Sunday (Feb. 18) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco. The group, organized by Lipps, reviewed what is known about Europa and focused on the problems that need to be solved before undertaking a search for life on the frozen moon.
With years of experience studying life in the Antarctic and Arctic ice, Lipps, a member of the campus's Museum of Paleontology, knows the bizarre places organisms can thrive, and the unique processes that can bring life from deep under the ice to the surface. This is relevant because Europa, the third largest of Jupiter's moons, is thought to have a thick ocean of water overlain by a layer of ice that could be miles thick.
"Life thrives in ice, it doesn't mind at all," said Lipps, whose interest in single-celled organisms drew him to consider the possibility of life on other planets, which is likely to be more akin to bacteria than to humans. "In Antarctica, every phylum of algae, protozoan, bacteria and animal lives in the ice, many of them in brine channels that don't freeze."
Bacteria, diatoms, clams, snails, sponges and even fish larvae live under the ice shelves, yet often appear on the surface
Contact: Robert Sanders
University of California - Berkeley