Peter Doran on seeking life under Europa’s ice

The robot sub being tested now in Antarctica might someday be used to find signs of life on other worlds. For example, Jupiter’s moon Europa might harbor life swimming in an ocean covered by ice.

A robot sub being tested now in Antarctica might someday be used to find signs of life on other worlds. For example, Jupiter’s moon Europa might harbor life swimming in an ocean covered by ice.

EarthSky spoke to Peter Doran of the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s principal investigator of the ENDURANCE project, whose robotic submarine will seek organic molecules beneath ice-covered Lake Bonney in Antarctica starting in late 2008. We asked Professor Doran what life on Europa might be like.

Peter Doran: On Europa, we don’t know enough to be able to answer that question. There may be higher orders, because there may be things like geothermal hot springs coming out of the vents, coming out of the bottom of the ocean.

By higher orders, Doran means higher life forms such as those found in and near earthly hot springs.

Peter Doran: And that would supply a lot of material and energy into the system where you may be able to support those higher orders. So if those are there, yeah, you might find some funny Europan fish.

But Doran said microbial life under Europa’s ice would probably be more likely. And as to why he and others want to look for life in strange places like Antarctica and Europa. . .

Peter Doran: For me, it’s the most important question that we can ask. Did life evolve elsewhere? And it sort of puts us in perspective.

If all goes well with the test of the ENDURANCE project in Antarctica in 2008, the robot sub will create a three-dimensional map of water conditions such as temperature and salinity. It’ll be able to detect organic molecules, signs of life in the depths of this Antarctic lake.

Peter Doran: It’s one of the last unexplored aquatic environments on Earth, really. And it’s such a deep lake, it’s under so much ice, that we’re really not sure if life can really exist there. So we’re interested in going down to see if the system that’s been isolated for perhaps millions of years could harbor an ecosystem that we can go and measure. And so the Endurance project is the first step towards that.

Our thanks to NASA, in celebration of the International Polar Year.

Our thanks to:
Peter T. Doran
University of Illinois at Chicago
Earth and Environmental Sciences

Jorge Salazar