Jupiter’s Europa May Be Our Best Chance at Finding Alien Life. What Happens Next?
Jupiter’s moons have long been contenders for life outside Earth. Europa, Io, and Ganymede are some of the most well-known — and new research has now found that Europa may just be the top contender for the title. The search for life outside our own home is as tantalizing as it is existential: it could very well change the course of life on Earth if we were to find out that we aren’t alone. And so, the quest has gripped humanity for generations, and now we appear to be closer than ever to definitively finding out.
The latest findings show strange ridges on Europa’s surface that could signal shallow reservoirs of liquid water — conditions that are well-suited for life, if similar surfaces in Greenland here on Earth are any indication. “Because it’s closer to the surface, where you get interesting chemicals from space, other moons and the volcanoes of Io, there’s a possibility that life has a shot if there are pockets of water in the shell,” said geophysicist Dustin Schroeder from Stanford University.
With experts increasingly veering to a definitive belief that life elsewhere does indeed exist, all that stands between that moment and now is the question of what to do when it actually happens.
For all this, it turns out we aren’t very prepared — both psychologically and politically speaking — for the possibility of actually being successful at finding life.
There was an attempt by the United Nations to grapple with this question, which quickly fizzled out when Mazlan Othman, the Director of the Office for Outer Space Affairs, refused to be the “take-me-to-your-leader person” if Earth were to be contacted by alien life. She also stressed that life, if we found it, would most likely be in the form of bacteria and not in the way pop culture depicts it to be.
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In 2015, the late Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner launched a project to look for extraterrestrial life called “Breakthrough Listen.” A lot of money is currently being poured into space exploration with the intent to find life.
“Our generation could realistically be the one to discover evidence of life beyond Earth,” NASA wrote in a commentary in Nature. Scientists say that communicating developments on this front is perhaps the most crucial issue to address, proposing a “confidence of life detection” scale as a communication framework so as to not sensationalize any findings. The scale contains seven steps, starting from detection to definitive confirmation.
There also exists the “Declaration of Principles for Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence” — a set of rules laid out by the UN as to what nation-states should do if, as the title of the guidelines suggests, any country actually finds evidence of this. But these aren’t legally binding and also fall short of plausible situations where private entities end up being the ones to make the first discovery.
It appears that there is a lot to figure out in terms of the legal ramifications, accountability to one another, and communicating the news to the public, given how culturally momentous such a discovery would be. Yet, we’re no closer to figuring this out than we were a few decades ago, but it’s about time we start to try.
“Given the profound implications of a discovery of life beyond Earth, it is irresponsible to embark upon a search without a parallel effort to help society prepare for success in that effort,” writes political scientist Roger Pielke Jr in The Guardian.