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Write every day no exceptions – Europa June 18, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in spaaaaaaaaaaace, write every day no exceptions.
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I’ve been reading an awful lot about Europa and Titan lately. For those that don’t know, Europa and Titans are moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively, and if there’s currently extraterrestrial life within our solar system, they’re the two most likely candidates. Europa probably contains a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface, water that’s heated by tidal forces exerted by Jupiter and its sister Io, while Titan has a thick atmosphere and a variety of complex hydrocarbon compounds on its surface, as well as weather and, yes, water, though in this case the water is in the form of rock-solid ice.

It’s extremely unlikely that any life we’d find there would be particularly complex. Our most optimistic current theories say that we’re likely to find bacteria or other micro-organisms, likely similar to the type we find clustered around hot springs or beneath Antarctic ice on our own planet – that is, adapted to extreme temperatures and circumstances.

But let’s consider a thought experiment for the moment, not unlike authors of old once speculated on what life beneath the clouds of Venus or in the deserts of Mars might be like. There’s a vast body of wonderful literature based on these concepts, even after the majority of the scientific community realized that we probably weren’t going to find glorious thick jungles on Venus or water-starved canal-building civilizations on Mars.

Europa is covered in extremely thick plates of ice. I’m not sure (and can’t look up at the moment) if that surface ice ever cracks enough to let liquid water to the surface, only to rapidly freeze again, and I can’t fully speculate on the kinds of ‘weather’ they’d have down there as I don’t understand the fluid-dynamics of ocean currents well enough, nor do I know what the core of Europa is like. I don’t know if it has a rocky center with a molten core or what, though I do gather it’s protected by cosmic radiation by Jupiter’s vast magnetic field, and from asteroid impacts by the outer moons of Ganymede and… Calypso, I think (see, my inability to access Wikipedia on the train already hurts my ability to write articles).

A civilization on Europa would live suspended in this liquid universe. They would have concepts of up and down, but they’d be rather different from ours since as a species they’d be able to ‘fly’ from the start. There’d be no Europan Wright Brothers; there’d be no need. Let me for the moment conjecture that like Earth, Europa has a rocky floor beneath those marvelous oceans, some of which are close to the surface and some of which are crushing, deadly depths. Europans would not, at first, turn to the skies, but rather to the depths, for their inspiration and exploration. They would build carefully pressurized vehicles to allow them to descend further and explore the chasms of their planet, before eventually sending explorers to the ice-cold skies. I can imagine them finding the upper levels difficult to live in due to the temperature, but an intelligent species would find ways to create tools to let them live there. Imagine fantastic cities in reverse, anchored in solid ice – to Europans, as if the sky were covered in air so cold it was solid.

And then one day, one Europan gets the idea to drill into the great ‘ceiling’. Or, perhaps, the shifting gravitational field of Jupiter (for which the Europans have many ultimately incorrect theories) or a stray meteor impact punches a vast hole in the ice, and, at last, they see…

… what?

Europans would be unlikely to see in visible light – if I was going to give any candidate for how they ‘see’ I would conjecture some combination of infrared and echolocation. Infrared would mean that the core of their planet would glow softly, while the sky would be black. Detail would be gathered through echolocating. So, what would the sky look like to such a creature?

I unfortunately can’t give any sort of accurate description right now due to, as I said, the fact that I write these essays on the train and thus can’t magically access Google or Wikipedia (damn!). But I can conjecture based on what I know:

Jupiter would be a great glowing red presence in the sky, covering much of it. If Io were visible, it would be a brightly studded orb that would approach and then recede at regular intervals. Stars would be faint, the Sun itself only a much brighter dot among them, and the whole sky would be full of peculiar background radiation. I don’t know what Earth would look like, but in this stage of Europan development, I doubt they would even think to look for life yet, or have the tools to do so. Indeed, even if they suddenly decided to build dozens of telescopes peeking through to the surface, they’d likely dismiss the Earth as an unlikely candidate for any sort of life – too close to the Sun, and therefore too exposed to dangerous ultraviolet radiation detrimental to the development of life.

Perhaps I’ll speculate on Titan civilization tomorrow.

In before all my biology and physics friends explain exactly why I am wrong.



1. Patrick - June 18, 2010

Did you miss this exciting story?


Also, have you read Clarke’s 2010? Life on Europa is a MAJOR plot element in that book. I can spoil it for you but it’s a terrific read.

The problem with ocean-dwelling beings and technology: no fire. There are ocean-dwellers with bigger brains and more dexterous manipulators than us…but where do you go from there? Industry is a bitch.

Jensen - June 18, 2010

I have not read anything by Clarke, which is I realize a point of epic goddamn fail on my part. I should really get on that!

I haven’t read that article, but I read an exciting one in Air + Space about a SPACEPLANE that they’re developing for titan – basically a plane that never lands. It works, because of dense atmosphere + light gravity.

2. Mystery Object Disappears on Jupiter | Level Beyond - June 18, 2010

[…] Write every day no exceptions – Europa « Counting Airplanes […]

3. Patrick - June 18, 2010

Re: Titanplane: neat!

But yeah, the mysteriously absent acetate is kind of a big deal. An astrobiologist predicted years ago that acetate, which is as far as we know an inevitable consequence of the chemical environment on Titan, could be a nourishment source for life, and that if we don’t find any it is an indication that it’s being consumed as it is synthesized.


Anyway, you don’t need to have read (or even seen) 2001 to read 2010. Don’t see the 2010 movie unless you have seen 2001 though (and the 2010 movie spends much less time on Europa, due to time constraints).

Hey, I just realized that it IS the year 2010. So read 2010! 😀 And if you don’t care about being spoiled for it, scroll below…

Ok, basically, Sufficiently Advanced Aliens observe big sea monsters on Europa and a low-density ecosystem in the clouds of Jupiter. Their only goal is to promote life that could someday reach their level. They determine that the Jupiter life has 0% chance of getting there, and neither does the Europa life…unless their environment is transformed into a less stressful one. So they compress Jupiter until it blazes into a dwarf star and give the rest of Jupiter’s now-quite-temperate moons to us…but preserve Europa with lethal force. In the movie, this has the happy side effect of ending the Cold War!

/end spoilers

4. Patrick - June 18, 2010

NOOOOO it did not preserve my formatting and I can’t delete it.

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