First off, quick show of hands: who here has seen Europa Report?
Well, good news, NASA has too, so they aren’t even trying to land on the planet. The plan is to get a satellite in orbit around Jupiter that can do regular flybys of the moon and collect data from a distance.
Okay, okay, I know, it’s not really all the science fiction mythology surrounding Europa that’s keeping NASA from trying to land there, it’s the technical challenges involved in landing even an unmanned probe on such a distant body. But it has to be at least tickling the back of their minds, right? Just a little?
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Europa is one of the moons of Jupiter. It has long been identified as the most likely place for life to exist in our solar system outside of earth, because it’s surface is composed primarily of liquid oceans covered by a (relatively) thin mantle of ice. Liquid water is the magic element that scientists theorize is necessary for life to develop.
Science fiction writers love this. There has long been a trope in SciFi that Europa is home not only to life, but to highly advanced life. After all, it’s way more interesting that way than if all we found was some single-cell bacteria or something.
Except, here’s the thing: finding complex life on Europa may make for a more compelling narrative then just finding some microscopic organisms, I’ll give you that. But it isn’t necessary for there to be aliens on Europa to make the idea of finding life there interesting. The question of whether or not there is life on Europa is more then interesting: it’s fascinating, crucial, pivotal even.
The thing is, science has no idea how common life actually is in the universe. Is life on Earth a fluke, possibly even unique, a strange occurrence that happened here and maybe nowhere else because of some crazy chance that was a one-in-a-ridiculously-large-number shot? Or is life common, an almost inevitable byproduct of any planet that happens to posses the right conditions?
We don’t know. We can theorize, we can speculate, we can guess, but we can’t know with the information we have now.
But, if we get to Europa and there is life, even monocellular life, living in its subterranean oceans, then chances are that life is common in the universe. On the other hand, if there is no life on Europa, then we can extrapolate that life is rare, requiring far more exacting conditions to occur.
So really we don’t need sentient aliens or sea monsters to make a trip to Europa interesting. Europa is going to tell us what we can expect from the rest of our travels through the universe. It doesn’t get much more interesting then that.
NASA’s Europa mission is under development now, and is scheduled to launch some time in the 2020s.