The Beckoning of the Ice Worlds

I have seen the future of space exploration, and it looks like a cue ball covered with brown scribbles. I am talking about Europa, the 1,940-mile-wide, nearly white, and exceedingly smooth satellite of Jupiter. It is an enigmatic world that is, in many ways, almost a perfect inversion of Earth. It is also one of the most plausible places to look for alien life. If it strikes you that those two statements sound rather contradictory—why yes, they do. And therein lies the reason why Europa just might be the most important world in the solar system right now.

The unearthly aspects of Europa are literally un-earthly : This is an orb sculpted from water ice, not from rock. It has ice tectonics in place of shifting continents, salty ocean in place of mantle, and vapor plumes in place of volcanoes. The surface scribbles may be dirty ocean material that leaked up through the icy equivalent of an earthquake fault.

From a terrestrial perspective, Europa is built all wrong, with its solid crust up top and water down below. From the perspective of alien life, though, that might be a perfectly dandy arrangement. Beneath its frozen crust, Europa holds twice as much liquid water as exists in all of our planet’s oceans combined. Astrobiologists typically flag water as life’s number-one requirement; well, Europa is drowning in it. Just below the ice line, conditions might resemble the environment on the underside of Antarctic ice sheets. At the bottom of its buried ocean, Europa may have an active system of hydrothermal vents. Both of

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