Europa Gets the Movie Treatment: Here's Why Jupiter's Ice Moon Is So Cool

08/02/2013 09:12 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013
  • Lauren Lyons Science Communicator, Engineer, and Space Policy Analyst

Ladies and gents, I'm here to tell you that nerd dreams do come true. Hollywood made a feature film about my favorite thing in science: Europa.

It's called Europa Report, it opens on Friday and, surprisingly, the reviews are not awful!

I am obsessed with Europa. Not Europe (though I like it there, too), but Europa, as in one of Jupiter's moons. You see, what's cool (no pun intended) about this body is that its surface is made mostly of water ice. And underneath that ice: a liquid salt-water ocean. Why does that matter? Because on Earth, wherever we find water -- even in the deepest, coldest, hottest, nastiest, most toxic of environments -- we find life.

Europa, which is just a bit smaller than our own moon, also has a similar relationship to its planet: it undergoes tidal pull. When the Earth and the moon's gravitational forces interact, energy is exchanged. In our case, it causes high and low tide. In the case of Europa and Jupiter, it causes the surface of Europa's ice to crack, forming the red lines -- or lineae -- you see in photos. It also is believed to be a source of geothermal energy that could potentially sustain sub-surface life that may exist in the ocean -- even if there is no sunlight or oxygen. And this is not so strange: on Earth, we find that even in the most extreme environments at the bottom of the Atlantic's hydrothermal vents, life still finds a way.

Now those red lines are more interesting than simply looking eerily familiar to the results of your last retina test (P.S.: You MUST watch THIS). These lineae are magnesium-sulfate rich cracks and crevasses that could serve as excellent sampling points for organic material that might be bubbling up from ~60 miles/100km to the surface, and refreezing.

There are several Europa missions that have been conceptualized by scientists all over the world, including the one I had an opportunity to work on (before it was cancelled) called JIMO or Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. Some embodiments include a melting bullet-shaped probe much like the "Cryobots" scientists use to sample bacterial life in the thick ice sheets in the Arctic. Others include grappling hook robots that straddle the cracks and crevasses to drill down into the ice to sample the good stuff.

Europa is so fascinating that when the National Academy of Sciences -- whose Space Studies Board defines what NASA's scientific priorities ought to be over the course of a decade -- created their most recent Decadal Survey, it placed a mission to Europa near the very top, only behind Mars.

So why all the fuss over Europa?

Well, life off of Earth, of course! Even if instead of finding an alien humpback whale (though how awesome would that be?!?) we were to discover bacteria living without sunlight at the bottom of a hydrothermal vent, we would finally be getting closer to answering the question "Are we alone?"

If we discovered little critters, we'd be able to ask how similar or different are these bacteria to our own? If they are similar, we learn fascinating things about the origins of life on this planet (are those our cousins on Europa?). If they are wildly bizarre and challenge our long-held beliefs about what constitutes life, then do we re-write our biology text books? And what does this mean for the true limits of survival? The possibility of life on other worlds? And on Earth?

So may exciting questions.

But unfortunately, there is not enough money available to get the answers. You see, getting to Europa is really, really difficult. It's far. It took NASA's Galileo six years to get to Europa to conduct the flyby in the '90s that gave us the bulk of the data we have on the moon. And while propulsion technology has evolved, there is still much work to do -- especially when considering the added weight and volume requirements to ship a lander. Therefore we would need to develop solar, ion, or nuclear propulsion methods that are lightweight and won't run out during the journey.

But just because the United States isn't leading the charge to Europa, it doesn't mean others are letting this opportunity for great discovery fly by. In 2022, The European Space Agency will be launching JUICE or JUpiter ICy Moon Explorer. This satellite will visit Europa in addition to two other Jupiter moons -- Ganymede and Callisto -- which are also thought to have liquid oceans. But until we get on the surface and do some science, we'll never really know for sure what lies beneath. That is, unless it breaks through and decides to wave hello...

So, in lieu of an actual landing mission to Europa, we will have to settle for a fictional one. And this one sends not just a robot, but a human crew. And of course, as you can see from the trailer, the trip ain't exactly a cake walk.

The film has a 75 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, they consulted with the National Academy of Sciences Science and Entertainment Exchange to get the science right and it screened a couple of weeks ago at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These three things are all I really need to be convinced.