How a new discovery on Europa could lead to finding alien life

Contributed by
Mar 6, 2013, 10:20 AM EST

Looks like one of Jupiter's moons could be the next great frontier in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Scientists have believed for a while now that Jupiter's moon Europa could be home to a large subterranean ocean, and that that ocean could be home to alien life. The trouble is, we haven't been able to get close enough to Europa yet to prove that. But now a new study by astronomers Mike Brown and Kevin Hand of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has yielded a powerful new clue that could mean Europa's got lots of potential for life.

Using data from the Keck II telescope, Brown and Hand determined that Europa's surface was giving off a signal that appears to be from magnesium sulfate on the moon's surface. Based on their analysis, Brown and Hand determined that the chemical compound was coming from a reaction between salt water bubbling up from Europa's subterranean ocean and sulfur given off by Jupiter's largest moon, Io. 

So what does that have to do with life? Well, Europa's too far away from the sun to get any real life-giving energy from it, so if life does exist on the moon it needs another source of energy. The chemical activity that produces this magnesium sulfate could serve as a viable energy substitute for life on the moon. But that's not all. Even if it doesn't turn out that this chemical reaction could support life on the moon's surface, the discovery that salt water may be lurking on Europa's surface means that scientists may be able to directly sample the salt water more easily, which could provide a more direct path to discovering what (if anything) is living in the Europa ocean.

So it looks like Europa's a pretty good bet for extraterrestrial life these days. What are the odds that we'll actually find something there?

(Via PopSci)