"For most of the past 200 years, were you to ask an astronomer where the most
likely place in the solar system is to find life, the answer will have been
Mars. The red planet and its potential inhabitants have captured our collective
imagination for centuries, transforming from an imaginary canal-building
civilisation in the 19th century to the much more scientifically plausible
microbes of today. But now, the thinking is different.
In the past few decades, astronomers have been increasingly drawn to the
deeper, darker realms of the solar system. Specifically, they have become
fascinated by the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Years of research have all
but proved that some of these moons contain vast oceans of liquid water below
their frozen surfaces.
On Earth, water is the number one prerequisite for supporting life. So could
these icy moons be habitable too? In April, the European Space Agency (Esa)
will launch a mission designed to find out.
The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) is now at Esa’s spaceport in Kourou,
French Guiana. It is undergoing final testing and fitting to its launch
vehicle, an Ariane 5 rocket similar to the one that propelled the James Webb
space telescope into orbit in December 2021.
Yet even to those in the field of astrobiology there is a sense of incredulity
about the idea of investigating planetary habitability on Jupiter’s moons.
“If you said to someone 50 years ago, I’m gonna go and look for life in the
outer solar system around the gas giant planets, people would have thought you
were mad because there was no reason to think that it was a reasonable
proposition at all,” says Charles Cockell, one of the directors of the UK
Centre for Astrobiology at Edinburgh University.
What changed was a set of measurements from a Nasa mission in the 1990s that,
at first, made no sense."
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*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics