When it comes to seeking out signs of extraterrestrial life within our own solar system, no target has proven more tantalizing than Europa – a world thought to be home to a potentially habitable ocean of liquid water hidden deep beneath a thick icy exterior shell.
But while much of the focus over the years has been on the possibility of life deep within its subterranean ocean, scientists have more recently discovered signs of shallow pools of liquid water much nearer to Europa’s surface that could also be a good place to look for signs of life.
The discovery was made by comparing Europa’s surface – which features giant parallel ridges stretching for hundreds of miles – to similar features found in Greenland’s ice sheet.
If they formed in a similar way, then – like Greenland – Europa could be home to pockets of subsurface water which, according to scientists, would help to circulate the chemicals necessary for life.
“Liquid water near to the surface of the ice shell is a really provocative and promising place to imagine life having a shot,” said geophysicist Dustin Schroeder of Stanford University.
“The idea that we could find a signature that would suggest a promising pocket of water like this might exist, I think, is very exciting.”
If this turns out to be correct, it would also make it easier for a future space probe to analyze samples of Europa’s water for signs of life because it wouldn’t need to drill down very far into the icy crust to reach it.