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Jupiter's icy moon Europa, regarded as perhaps the solar system's best bet to host alien life, keeps getting more and more interesting.
Big slabs of ice are sliding over and under each other within Europa's ice shell, a new study suggests. The Jovian satellite may thus be the only solar system body besides Earth to possess a system of plate tectonics.
"From a purely science or geological perspective, this is incredible," study lead author Simon Kattenhorn of the University of Idaho told Space.com. "Earth may not be alone. There may be another body out there that has plate tectonics. And not only that, it's ice!"
"It was very clear that you could reconstruct the original picture simply by moving plates around," Kattenhorn said, comparing the duo's approach to assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
Further, there was a gap in this reconstructed picture, as if a large puzzle piece had fallen off the table. In a sense, that's probably what did happen, Kattenhorn said.
"In this case, the big chunk had actually moved down underneath the adjacent plate and was forever lost, recycled into the interior" of Europa's ice shell, he said.
That chunk was indeed big, about the size of the state of Massachusetts, Kattenhorn added.
The new results come less than a year after plumes of water vapor were spotted erupting from Europa's south polar region. That find excited astrobiologists a great deal, because it suggested that a robotic probe may be able to sample the moon's subsurface ocean of liquid water at a distance, without even touching down.
The huge plumes of water vapor erupting from Jupiter's ice-covered moon Europa seem to have vanished, and scientists aren't sure why.
In December 2013, researchers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope announced that they had spotted evidence of geysers blasting into space from Europa's south polar region. The discovery sparked a great deal of excitement among space scientists, as it suggested that a robotic flyby probe might be able to sample Europa's subsurface ocean of liquid water without even touching down.
However, follow-up Hubble observations in January and February of this year showed no signs of the plumes, which were estimated to reach about 125 miles (200 kilometers) into space.
If the scientists' interpretation — laid out in a study published online today (Sept. 7) in the journal Nature Geoscience— is correct, planetary science textbooks will have to be rewritten.
"Plate tectonics has been thought to be unique to our world," Michelle Selvans, of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, wrote in an accompanying "News and Views" piece in the same issue of Nature Geoscience.
An active system of plate tectonics could also explain two puzzling facts about Europa, Kattenhorn said: 1) why its surface is so young (less than 90 million years, as estimated by meteorite-impact rates), and 2) how the moon accommodates the creation of new ice on its shell, which has been observed previously. (Europa isn't getting any bigger, so some process must be balancing out the production of new material.)
Some scientists think plate tectonics were essential to the rise of life on Earth. For example, the idea goes, the movement of plates replenishes nutrients and helps stabilize the planet's climate by recycling carbon.
So it's natural to wonder if Europan plate tectonics may make the icy moon more habitable for simple lifeforms, Selvans wrote.
originally posted by: dollukka
Fascinating how much there is water in Europa ! Thank you for posting !
In 2010 space odyssey Jupiter turned into new sun and Europa as a new earth..
originally posted by: Subaeruginosa
I get so frustrated about Europa. All the time and money humans spend running around aimlessly building weapons and what not, when we could be all working together to advance the human race and start some real space exploration.
Why can't they just hurry and get there stuff together, send a space probe up there and melt a hole though that ice. I want (no I need) to know whats under that ice already!
(Reuters) - President Barack Obama's 2015 NASA budget plan includes funding for a robotic mission to an ocean-bearing moon of Jupiter and could help boost commercial ventures to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA officials said on Tuesday.
The White House is requesting a $17.5 billion budget for the U.S. space agency in the fiscal year that begins October 1.