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Astronomers study whether a remote moon in our solar system can support life


Astronomers are one step closer to knowing whether a remote moon in our solar system can support life. Recent images from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope have scientists very excited about this cold, watery world. Here's NPR's Alice Woelfle.

ALICE WOELFLE, BYLINE: Scientists aren't totally clear about how many moons Jupiter has, but Europa stands out.

SAMANTHA TRUMBO: You have this global icy shell and then beneath that, a global layer of salty liquid. And then beneath that, you have the rocky core and then a potentially metallic core within that. So it really is that kind of global layered truffle.

WOELFLE: Samantha Trumbo is a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University who studies icy surfaces in space. Using images from the Webb telescope, she and other scientists recently made a very interesting discovery.

TRUMBO: We think we know that there's carbon in the ocean. We think that there's evidence that that carbon is in the form of CO2.

WOELFLE: This may help scientists figure out whether Europa's ocean can support life. Caltech astronomer Mike Brown co-authored a paper on the discovery.

MIKE BROWN: Having that carbon dioxide in the ocean is really a good step towards understanding what the conditions on that ocean are like. It doesn't mean that we know there's anything down there, but it's at least one more step in telling us that something down there could actually find ways to form energy.

WOELFLE: But what could possibly live in an ocean beneath several miles of ice?

BROWN: You certainly could have these microbial communities, like exist at the bottom of our ocean, deep in the interior of our planet, all these other places that are excluded from sunlight but still have microbial communities.

WOELFLE: So nothing like the charismatic aliens we see in Hollywood movies. But Brown says these microbes could reveal a lot about how life is formed.

BROWN: We have a whole complicated thing with DNA and respiration, and the chemical pathways are incredibly complex. Is there another way? Or is that some weird universal pathway which is the only way that life can exist? And that would just show us right there that the ability to form life and to replicate can go down many different chemical pathways. And there could just be an incredible myriad and diversity of life out there in the universe.

WOELFLE: Though Brown is quick to point out it's still too soon to know for sure.

BROWN: None of it has to be true. It could just be that the oceans are carbonated and dead, and that's it.

WOELFLE: But that won't stop scientists like Brown and Trumbo from continuing to study Europa. Next year, NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper, which is designed to study the distant moon's surface even more closely.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Woelfle.

(SOUNDBITE OF A.L.I.S.O.N.'S "SPACE ECHO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alice Woelfle
Alice Woelfle is an editor on Morning Edition. She began her journalism career at Member station KZYX in Mendocino County, California. She has also worked at KQED and KALW in San Francisco. Prior to that she worked as a rancher, educator and musician. Woelfle is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.