Europa Alien Discovery Shocks Scientists: Life Could Survive on Jupiter's Frozen Moon by Eating Radioactive Waste

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 - 10:50AM
Tuesday, 27 February 2018 - 10:50AM
Europa Alien Discovery Shocks Scientists: Life Could Survive on Jupiter's Frozen Moon by Eating Radioactive Waste
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Image credit: YouTube

As NASA continues to gear up for a mission to probe Europa, new scientific research suggests what we should be looking for in order to spot alien life living on Jupiter's frozen moon.

The Europa Clipper mission, which is planned to launch at some point in the 2030s, will be an attempt to learn more about the icy environment on the moon. Europa is encased in a thick layer of water ice, and as such, we don't yet know much about what it's like under its frozen exterior.

Because of the copious amount of water found on Europa, scientists have long speculated that the moon might play host to some form of alien life. These aliens would need to be particularly hardy, thanks to the extreme weather conditions found on the planet, but it's not impossible that there might be something living in orbit around Jupiter.

A new study published in Scientific Reports makes some bold claims about what we should be looking for when trying to spot evidence of life on Europa. According to the study, there are creatures right here on Earth that look very similar to what we can expect from Europa aliens, if any exist.

These creatures, micro-organisms called Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator, live happily in the Mponeng in South Africa; an environment with no natural sunlight, and consume the byproduct of radioactive uranium warping the surrounding rocks.

According to Douglas Galante, lead researcher on the study:

Opening quote
"This very deep subterranean mine has water leaking through cracks that contain radioactive uranium. The uranium breaks down the water molecules to produce free radicals [H+, OH-, and others]. The free radicals attack the surrounding rocks, especially pyrite [iron disulfide, FeS2], producing sulfate. The bacteria use the sulfate to synthesize ATP [adenosine triphosphate], the nucleotide responsible for energy storage in cells. This is the first time an ecosystem has been found to survive directly on the basis of nuclear energy...We studied how the parameters found in Mponeng could be transposed to Europa so that it would have conditions suitable for hosting similar ecosystems."
Closing quote

It seems that the isolated, harsh, radioactive environment in the Mponeng mine gives us a pretty good idea of how life might evolve on Europa. In fact, this is very similar to a discovery made in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where bacteria living in the driest desert on Earth have been taken as a sign that life could exist on Mars.

With both theories, though, the fact remains that life did not start in these harsh environments on Earth. The perfect mix of ingredients and the right conditions were needed in order to kickstart evolution on our planet, and these micro-organisms eventually found their way to less hospitable environments.

Just because life exists in weird places on Earth, it doesn't mean that we can expect similar creatures to be hiding in other parts of the solar system.

Still, though, the knowledge that creatures can exist on a diet of toxic waste is helpful as we prepare to explore Europa.

We may not have the smoking gun proof of alien life just yet, but we're getting better at knowing what to look for, and that's an important step to determining whether or not we're alone in the solar system.

Alien Life