A NASA team in Antarctica, drilling down through ancient ice sheets, have found complex living creatures where they expected to find no life at all. This discovery reopens the possibility of finding life in the oceans under the ice surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s four large moons.
The scientists were working on Pine Island Glacier ice shelf, some twenty kilometres from the sea. Having drilled an eight centimetre wide hole almost two hundred meters down into sea water, at a depth where no sunlight can ever penetrate, they were expecting completely lifeless water, home to a few extremophile bacteria at most. So they were astonished to find a seven centimetre long bright orange shrimp frolicking in their camera lights. Much work remains to be done to investigate how such a creature could survive under such arid sterile conditions. Living creatures cannot survive in isolation – there must be an entire ecosystem to provide food for something as complex as a shrimp.
It has long been speculated that Europa could host life, as it is composed of a rocky core, surrounded by a thick shell of water. The outer crust is frozen solid, as it is far from the Sun and extremely cold, but tidal forces from Jupiter and the other three major satellites raise the internal temperature enough that there is a vast liquid ocean beneath the ice. If life can survive under the Antarctic ice sheet, so far from a source of oxygen or sunlight, then perhaps it is thriving under the icy surface of Europa!
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