Is there life on Jupiter's moon Europa ?
With average temperatures of minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, an almost nonexistent atmosphere and a complex web of cracks in a layer of ice encompassing the entire surface, the environment on Jupiter’s moon Europa is about as alien as they come. So are the enormous forces behind the surface display, namely an ocean beneath the ice nine times deeper than Earth’s deepest ocean trench and gravitational affects from a planet 318 times the mass of Earth. For nearly a decade, it has been Simon Kattenhorn’s passion to understand the amazing surface features on Europa and how they are formed. And supported by new grants from NASA, his research may provide clues to one of Mankind’s biggest questions—is there life outside of Earth? Kattenhorn—an associate professor of geology at the University of Idaho—delights in dissecting the beautiful and complex web of cracks, faults and ridges on the surface of Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. The first of his two recent grants totaling $358,000 will allow him to study the most recent geological features on the highest resolution photos NASA has to offer of Europa. These subtle cracks will reveal if there is any current geological activity on the distant moon, which would also be the best place to look for signs of life. “In order to really get at the issue, ‘Is there life out there?’, we have to know the best place to look,” said Kattenhorn, who is also currently authoring a chapter for a book on the moon. “And in the case of Europa, the best place to look is where cracks on its icy surface are active today.
” But finding signs for current geological activity is no easy task. Kattenhorn can tell a lot about fractures because they form very specific patterns that allow him to unravel their relative ages. His goal in this project is to find the youngest fractures and compare them to the tidal forces that Europa would be experiencing today to see if the features and recent forces match up.