Sci-fi Word of the Week: Europa

Note: Some of the words I’ll talk about on Mondays will technically not be science fiction words, as the technology or the events or the objects are real. Some of them will be fictional, but I also want to talk about some real scientific principles that are pretty spectacular and that we don’t encounter in everyday life.

europaI’m kicking off Sci-fi Word of the Week with something that is very real, because I am fascinated by Europa. If you read much about space, then you’ll already know a lot about Europa, but if not, don’t worry. I’m going to tell you all about it.

Europa is one of Jupiter’s many moons and was first discovered way back in 1610 by Galileo. So, knowledge of Europa has been around awhile. Like most bodies in our solar system, Europa was named after a figure in Greek Mythology, a woman of high lineage who was abducted by Zeus. Her Greek name stems from the meaning “wide” and “face” which led some philosophers to believe she was a goddess who represented the cow. Frankly, that seems a bit strange to me, and for some reason, it makes me think of the hidden cow level in the old Diablo II game.

Later on, some thought the name might mean “open-minded” instead, while others speculated it might mean “to set” as in the sun. Regardless of the meaning, this is the name Europa was given, although apparently there was quite a bit of bickering over this back in the day. So much so that it was renamed Jupiter II for awhile.

EuropaCutawayCarroll_700Europa is special, because it has the potential to be very special. The reason all boils down to water. We sent an orbiter (aptly named Galileo) to Jupiter and its moons, and it gave us some incredibly interesting data, showing a layer of something on the moon’s surface. Scientists believe this to be a big fat layer of ice.

That’s cool and all, but the really important thing here is the (hopefully) liquid ocean underneath the massive ice layer. As we all know, water is conductive to life, and if Europa has this incredible expanse of it underneath its frozen surface…well, there could be life down there, especially if Europa has a volcanic seafloor to provide energy for water-dwelling forms of life (scientists think it does).

If there is indeed life on Europa, a moon very close to our own planet, within not only our own galaxy but within our own solar system, the odds of there being life elsewhere in the universe are astronomical, no pun intended. I don’t know about you, but I find that possibility incredibly captivating, and I hope this is a discovery we can make in my lifetime.

CryobotUnfortunately, Europa’s environment is highly radioactive. We’ve done flybys, but to really understand what’s going on down there, we need to get something on the surface. Or, actually, underneath the surface. That’s a tough thing to survive, even for a robot, though scientists have been working on a cryobot (seen on the left) to do this very thing. After landing on the moon, it will drill through the frozen layer and explore the liquid ocean underneath for signs of life. As much as I would like to see a manned space exploration, it seems likely impossible. Man hasn’t even been to Mars yet, and we haven’t stepped foot on the Moon since 1972. We have a long way to go before we’re able to send humans on a six-year flight to land on a radioactive body.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in what that mission might look like, I highly suggest the film, Europa Report. It’s a fairly realistic portrayal of what a manned spaceflight further out into our solar system might entail. They were careful to simulate zero gravity, and they used a lot of real footage of space walks and the I.S.S. in order to capture a sense of realism. Once they get on Europa, things get a little wonky, but I’d watch again just to see the space flight stuff.

Next week, I’ll highlight a word that’s much more on the fictional side of sci-fi while staying firmly inside the space theme for now.


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