Just about everything that scientists see as essential for extraterrestrial life — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and sources of energy — is now known to be pretty common in our solar system and beyond. It’s basically there for the taking by untold potential forms of life.
But what is not at all common is liquid water. Without liquid water Earth might well be uninhabited and today’s Mars, which was long ago significantly wetter, warmer and demonstrably habitable, is widely believed to be uninhabited because of the apparent absence of surface water (and all that deadly radiation, too.)
This is a major reason why the discovery of regular plumes of water vapor coming out of the southern pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus has been hailed as such a promising scientific development. The moon is pretty small, but most scientists are convinced it does have an under-ice global ocean that feeds the plume and just might support biology that could be collected during a flyby.
But the moon of greatest scientific interest is Europa, one of the largest that orbits Jupiter. It is now confidently described as having a sub-surface ocean below its crust of ice and — going back to science fiction writer extraordinaire Arthur C. Clarke — has often been rated the most likely body in our solar system to harbor extraterrestrial life.
That is why it is so important that years of studying Europa for watery plumes has now paid off. While earlier observations strongly suggested that sporadic plumes of water vapor were in the atmosphere, only last month was the finding nailed, as reported in the journal Nature Astronomy.
“While scientists have not yet detected liquid water directly, we’ve found the next best thing: water in vapor form,” said Lucas Paganini, a NASA planetary scientist who led the water detection investigation.
The amount of water vapor found in the European atmosphere wasn’t great — about an Olympic-sized pool worth of H2O. … Read more