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The Ocean of Europa
Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer
writes and presents a weekly science column for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.
The columns, which have the umbrella title
Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science,
are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and
syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.
Recorded 10 December 2002
Host: On Earth, life began in the seas, and so if
you're looking for life in outer space, you should start by
searching for water. Here's science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer
with a look at a watery world that's very close to home ...
Robert J. Sawyer: Life started here on Earth in a
primordial soup a mixture of water and organic chemicals,
fueled by energy in the form of light from our sun.
Any other place with life in our solar system will probably
require that same recipe: liquid water with a dash of organic
chemicals plus sunlight.
Unfortunately, of the nine planets in our solar system, only our
own wonderful Earth has liquid water. So does that mean there's
no other life in the solar system?
Perhaps not because there's more to our solar system than
just the sun and planets.
For one thing, seven of the planets have moons in some
cases, dozens of them. In total, there are eighty moons in
our solar system.
Unfortunately, seventy-nine of them including our own, the
one we call the moon have no liquid water.
But one, a moon of Jupiter named Europa, is entirely covered by a
vast ocean of liquid water.
Sound Effect: Surf crashing
Great! All we need to get life, then, is to add some organic
chemicals and solar radiation to this watery stock.
There's just one problem: the ocean covering Europa has a frozen
crust of ice sealing it in. It's as if we had the pot full of
water ready to make soup, but there was a glass lid on top
preventing us from adding any ingredients.
Ah, but moons are deeply affected by the planets they orbit:
those planets tug on them constantly with their gravity,
producing tidal stresses. We don't see any visible signs of such
stresses on our own moon, because it's just a solid hunk of rock.
But on Europa, the stresses caused by its mother planet
giant Jupiter are very much in evidence.
Music: "Jupiter" (from Holst's The Planets)
Indeed, Jupiter's tides cause cracks to constantly appear in the
icy crust over Europa's ocean. Those cracks open wide, forming
fissures down to the liquid water below and through those
fissures, light from our sun gets in.
Sound Effect: Ice cracking
But that's still not enough to make the soup called life: water
plus solar energy equals nothing more exciting than hot water. We
still need organic chemicals complex carbon compounds
to produce life.
Mighty Jupiter to the rescue once again! Its gravitational pull
is constantly dragging in comets and comets are
essentially dirty snowballs, polluted by organic chemicals.
Many comets such as Shoemaker-Levy 9, which made headlines
a few years ago crash directly into Jupiter. But often
enough Europa gets in the way, and the comets crash into it,
Thank of it as spatial delivery! The missing ingredients for life
carbon compounds come pouring down out of Europa's
sky in the form of comets. And when those organic chemicals make
it through the fissures Jupiter's gravity has opened up in
Europa's icy crust, then voilà! all our ingredients
come together in one place: water, organic chemicals, and light
from the sun.
So, there might well be life in the oceans of Europa NASA
is working on sending a probe there to find out for sure. And
some of those life forms might even now be looking up through one
of those cracks in the ice, spotting our blue planet Earth, and
wondering if maybe ... just maybe ... life might exist on that
watery world, too.
Sound Effect: Lapping waves.
I'm Robert J. Sawyer.
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