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Imagine intelligent aliens on water worlds

Undersea exploration
A future mission to Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, could send a probe through the ice to explore what’s thought to be an ocean beneath. (NASA / JPL Illustration)

Instead of cave dwellers gathered around a campfire, roasting mastodon meat, imagine an octopus tribe floating around a hydrothermal vent at the seafloor, boiling lobsters.

That’s the scenario sketched out by Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at Germany’s Technical Institute Berlin who’s also an adjunct professor at Arizona State University and Washington State University.

In an essay published today on Smithsonian Air and Space magazine’s website, Schulze-Makuch notes that a fair number of potentially habitable planets could have surfaces completely covered by oceans. Could life arise on such planets? And if so, how technologically advanced could such species become?

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New hints of water on Europa are found in old data

Europa and Galileo
An artist’s conception shows the Galileo spacecraft passing through a plume erupting from the surface of Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. A new computer simulation gives us an idea of how the magnetic field interacted with a plume. The magnetic field lines (depicted in blue) show how the plume interacts with the flow of Jovian plasma. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Michigan Illustration)

A closer look at magnetic and plasma wave readings from NASA’s now-defunct Galileo spacecraft firms up the evidence for claims that plumes of water periodically spray out from the surface of Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. Such claims have sparked speculation that life forms might live in an ocean beneath the ice, and that traces of such life could be detected by a future mission.

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Hubble sees more signs of Europa’s water

Europa plumes
These composite images show a suspected plume of material erupting two years apart from the same location on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Both plumes, photographed in ultraviolet light by Hubble, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. (NASA / ESA / STScI / USGS)

Scientists say Europa, a mysterious moon of Jupiter, has shown fresh signs of watery plumes that may hint at a habitable environment beneath the ice.

Last year, the Hubble Space Telescope picked up observations of what appeared to be a plume of watery material, emanating from the same area where a plume was spotted in 2014.

The most recent plume rises about 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Europa’s surface, which is twice as high as the earlier plume.

The source of the activity is an unusually warm region of ice that appears to be crisscrossed by cracks, based on pictures captured in the late 1990s by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft.

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Hubble sees more hints of Europa’s water plumes

Europa plumes
This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Hubble data were taken on Jan. 26, 2014. The image of Europa, superimposed on the Hubble data, is assembled from data from the Galileo and Voyager missions. (Credit: W. Sparks / STScI / NASA / ESA / USGS Astrogeology Science Center)

It’s not aliens. And it’s not exactly surprising, despite NASA’s advance billing. But new evidence of water plumes emanating from Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, have added to the excitement over a proposed mission that could sample the water for signs of life.

The evidence comes in the form of splotchy ultraviolet images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, operating at the limits of its sensitivity. Scientists say the images appear to show intermittent emissions of water vapor near Europa’s south pole.

“If plumes exist, this is an exciting finding,” William Sparks, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, told reporters today during a teleconference.

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NASA drops hints about Europa’s hidden ocean

Europa
An image from NASA’s Galileo orbiter shows Europa’s icy surface, crisscrossed by reddish-brown streaks of radiation-darkened salt. (Credit: NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk)

NASA is gearing up to unveil “surprising evidence” of activity that may be related to the presence of a watery ocean beneath the icy surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

In a media advisory sent out today, the space agency said the evidence comes from the Hubble Space Telescope, in the form of images taken during a “unique Europa observing campaign.”

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NASA tries to pack big vision in smaller budget

Image: SLS launch
NASA is developing a heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System, shown in this artist’s conception. Spending in the category that includes the SLS and the Orion deep-space capsule would be trimmed in the budget proposed for the next fiscal year. (Credit: NASA)

Christmas has come and gone, and so has a bump in NASA’s spending plan: The agency’s proposed $19 billion budget for the next fiscal year, released today, represents a $300 million decline from this year’s level.

The money set aside for developing a new crew vehicle and heavy-lift rocket for deep-space exploration would be reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars, virtually guaranteeing a tussle with Congress.

Despite the reductions, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency’s vision for space exploration and technology is undimmed.

“The state of our NASA is as strong as it’s ever been – and when I say ‘our,’ I really mean it,” Bolden told a gathering of agency employees at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. He used that “strong” assessment as a frequent refrain for the last “State of NASA” address of the Obama administration.

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