By Fred Fink, Summer Times Staff Writer

If you think about space, what would be the first question that comes to your mind? Maybe its size, how many stars and planets it contains, or, probably, if there is intelligent alien life. Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most prominent astrophysicists, once offered his own take on this last question: “I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so.” This hypothesis might have become a reality—scientists discovered that Europa, one of the fifty moons that circle Jupiter, might contain life. 

A few years ago, researchers observed that under Europa’s ice sloshes a 100 kilometers deep saltwater ocean. Where water exists, life is a possibility. This is another reason the ice moon, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is considered one of the top candidates for hosting life outside our own planet Earth. Recently, scientists from the California Institute of Technology discovered that Europa’s ice sheet contains common salt (sodium chloride) in the so-called “chaos terrain,” the surface of the moon. This salt might dissolve in the ocean water which is covered by the massive and thick ice sheets; this increases the chance of life in the underground waters on the ocean floor, which is 120 kilometers below the -130°C surface of the Jupiter moon.

Exeter Summer students shared diverse answers to the question of whether there could be alien life forms on Europa. Sam Patterson from North Carolina said, “It is a hard question to answer. One thing that makes me think of is how we define life.” According to Sam, “we define life as carbon-based, having survival techniques and reproduction. Let us say life exists in some form in our solar system. It is not necessary carbon-based. And even if it is, microscopic life forms […] are changing everything and puts Earth on a new playing field.”

Daniel Zheng from Florida said: “I don’t know if there is extraterrestrial life. It does not even exist until you prove it and until now, nothing is proven.”

Nick from Thailand believed there could be life forms, but were most likely not similar to humans. “There could be bacteria and small life forms like bacteria and microbes, but not more,” he said.

Planet physicist Frank Sohl from the German Aerospace Center Institute of Planetary Research Planetary Physics believes that, “next to water and salt it is also vital that Europa is constantly bombarded with particles.” He adds that after scientific research, so-called “Black Smokers” were found, gaps were hot dissolved water from minerals in the earth inner and other substances flows out. In these areas of the ocean of the earth is life. Thats why some believe to find bacteria and other forms in this area. 

To research the moon even more, the NASA mission “Europa Clipper” and the European Space Agency (ESA) mission “Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer” will lead the way in early 2020 into the seven-year darkness of space to discover the undiscovered. Life on Europa is not to be ruled out but is still unlikely. After the Saturn moon Enceladus and the Jupiter moon Ganymede, Europa is one of the most likely candidates to contain life.