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Photo of the surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa.

The frozen, fissured surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, seen here in a colorized mosaic image from the Galileo spacecraft, hides a liquid ocean that may hold all the ingredients needed for life.

PHOTOGRAPH BY GALILEO PROJECT/NASA/JPL; REPROCESSED BY TED STRYK

Television personality/scientist Bill Nye attends the premiere of Fox's 'Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey' at The Greek Theatre on March 4, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

PHOTOGRAPH BY IMEH AKPANUDOSEN, GETTY

Bill Nye

for National Geographic

Published June 18, 2014

Every one of us has wondered if we're alone in the universe. Are there living things elsewhere? Is the Earth the only place we'll ever know that has life? That's the question posed by this month's cover story in National Geographic. It's one I think we can answer, and maybe sooner than you think.

Many of us think of alien life the way it's depicted in science fiction—creatures that look quite a bit like humans in makeup and that all speak English with a non-American accent. These made-up aliens hail from distant star systems. But there's a place right here in our own solar system that may be teeming with life. It's Europa, a moon of Jupiter, one of the four that you can see with an inexpensive telescope, just as Galileo Galilei did.

If you have a telescope and an evening, you can chart the position of the Galilean moons on a note card, as I used to do with my dad. They'll appear as bright dots next to the larger disk of Jupiter. Observe them just a couple of hours later, and you'll see how fast they're moving in their orbits. Europa is unique among these four—it has an enormous ocean. In fact Europa's ocean has twice the volume of seawater that we have here on Earth.

In astrobiology, the study of extraterrestrial life, it's generally agreed that living things need a solvent to move their chemicals around. So far, no one can come up with any solvent that's better for life than liquid water. Europa is inundated, even more than Earth is.

Out there, hundreds of millions of kilometers from the sun, you might expect the water to be entirely frozen. But Europa orbits Jupiter, and the giant planet's enormous gravity stretches and compresses Europa like a rubber ball squeezed in your palm. That motion becomes heat. It's like rubbing your hands together to keep warm, only on a planetary scale.

So while the outer core of Europa's ocean is a shell of ice some 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) thick, what's below is liquid. Shielded from radiation by solid ice and with plenty of internal heat, the sea of this alien world could well harbor life. Many investigators think it's certainly worth investigating, because a discovery of living things on another world would utterly change this one.

Sniffing Europa's Geysers

For the first time in history we have the chance to send a spacecraft out there to see if something is swimming around in all that water. Even better: Because of a remarkable feature of Europa, this mission would not be wildly expensive. We discovered it last year with the Hubble Space Telescope: Europa has geysers that continuously shoot Europa's extraterrestrial seawater into outer space. They shoot hundreds of tons of the moon's ocean to an altitude four times the height of our own Mount Everest. Can you imagine what such a thing would be like here on Earth? It would be astounding. It would be the number one wonder of our world.

Europa's geysers present us Earthlings with a remarkable, tantalizing opportunity. We could design and build a robotic spacecraft that would fly through these plumes and sniff around. It would cost each U.S. taxpayer about the equivalent of one reasonably priced burrito, albeit without extra guacamole. All we have to do is decide to go. The proposed name for the mission is the Europa Clipper. Some work has been done on the design, but funding for the project has been unsteady. At the Planetary Society we work to put the funding for missions like this into law so that NASA can get going.

Imagine it. The Clipper would make dozens of orbits, mapping the Europan surface with cameras and radar, flying through Europa's seawater plumes and analyzing them, looking for the chemistry of life, and perhaps finding some otherworldly microbes. That would be astonishing.

The Bottom Line

At NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, engineers, scientists, and skilled technicians design interplanetary spacecraft and schemes to get them to their extraordinary destinations. Europa mission plans have always come in pretty expensive, because everybody figured that we'd have to land there and drill through many kilometers of solid ice, potentially contaminating any ecosystem that might already be there. That's a strange but real science-fiction-style concern. But if we can analyze samples flung out into space, there's virtually no chance of contamination, and there's no need to build landing gear, drills, or complex anchor and tether systems. It would be much cheaper than anyone had calculated.

People everywhere know and respect NASA. It's the best brand the United States has. But like everything else, the agency's budget has been reduced over the years; it hasn't kept up with inflation.

Within NASA's budget is a line for planetary science. It's the part of NASA that does the most amazing things. Other space agencies put spacecraft in orbit around the Earth; a few even go to Mars. But no other space agency on Earth can land anything on Mars, let alone lower a small car there from a rocket-powered crane. (Read "Mars Gets Its Close-Up" in National Geographic magazine.) And no other agency can mount a mission like the Europa Clipper. The expertise is here in the United States. It allows people here to solve interplanetary problems that have never been solved before. It leads to innovation that, at last reckoning, produces $3.60 for every dollar that goes in.

The decision rests with the White House, which can ask permission from Congress to build the spacecraft, and with Congress, which can agree to set aside the money. That's where we at the Planetary Society come in. It's the reason my old professor Carl Sagan was one of the society's founders. We advance space science and exploration. With the support of our 45,000 members, people like you, we work with Congress and the administration, reminding them of the enormous value of planetary exploration and the great bargain that it is.

Just think what it would mean if we were to find a living thing in a geyser of seawater on another world. Every one of us here on Earth would stop and ponder what it means to be a living thing. I hope it would fill each of us with reverence for the cosmos and for our place within it. A mission to Europa would bring humankind together—and perhaps change the world.

Bill Nye is the CEO of the Planetary Society. Follow him on Twitter.

56 comments
Gary Proffitt
Gary Proffitt

garyopticaLess than a minute ago

Your comment is awaiting moderation
If you found strange marked out cubic plots of land in Hellas Planita as I did that even include a semi-circular object buried with four compartments and a slide of plots that lead up to it with a debris pile as if some ancient bull dozer had been at work, would you not conclude that you had found evidence already.My work as been published and I have had over 20,000 hits from various media sites but I have not managed to get in contact with NASA so far.For now you can all enjoy this discovery by googling "Quadrata Martis" or use this link which has coloured points of interest that you can zoom into.>> http://gigapan.com/gigapans/15...

qedlin saltum
qedlin saltum

 Nye would not suffer from such delusions of "cheap and easy life out there for the sampling" if he would stop toking on the Darwinian doobie that naturalists are addicted to. The only life Nye will find on Europa is what he brings with his contaminated spacemobile.  How soon can he leave?

Kevin Pheiffer
Kevin Pheiffer

I stopped reading when they started going overboard with selling the United States... Yes yes, we all know they're ahead in the space race. But fund the ESA (European Space Agency) a bit and you would have a worthy contender... if not more advanced and less pompous about it!

Saurabh Rao
Saurabh Rao

I wonder if NASA has a crowdfunding website for specific missions? They probably wouldn't raise more than $5- 10m for each mission, but it would be good to feel like I contributed in making something amazing happen :)

Roy Keltner
Roy Keltner

Exploration of space is important for 2 huge reasons.


1. Humans can always be killed off entirely if for some reason earth has major changes (be it the destruction of our atmosphere [aka mars], heating up due to increasing CO2 levels, or even destroying ourselves). So us as a species need to become a multi-planetary species.


2. Currently our understand of life and it's creation is minimal because we only have one tree of life to look at. All life here on earth is carbon based and also all based on one original ancestor. If we did find life elsewhere (including europa) then we would have something to compare it to be it carbon based or not. If you don't think finding a non earth based life could further science and medicine in more ways than any of use can imagine you are kidding yourself. 


Bob Shuttleworth
Bob Shuttleworth

We were the world's leader in space exploration. We'd walked on the moon. We have sent explorer rovers to Mars.  Now we seem to have settled for a secondary status. We have lost our enthusiasm for space. The shuttles now sit in or are waiting to be moved to museums. What is next. Currently if we want an ameroican in space we have to hitch a ride to the ISS which American technology help to create, on a Russian rocket. It was american space prowess that put the first pieces of that magnificent achievement in place  And now we must diplomatically beg for admittance.


There is something wrong here. I simply cannot believe that Americans have become so apathetic that we don't care one way or the other about space. The remake of "Cosmos" has garnered great ratings. There is interest. So when will our government and the American people demand a revive manned space program that will reach new heights and achieve new wonders for the human race? 


I vote for NOW.

Casey Dreier
Casey Dreier

There are a few people commenting here who bring up a common concern whenever people call for NASA missions: namely that the money would be better spent on poverty programs "here at home."


I just want to point out that this argument assumes a false dichotomy. We can do both, and have done both, for a long time. A good example of this is the creation of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs at the same time as the U.S. developed the Apollo program and landed on the Moon. They happened at the same time.


Also, the majority of government funding already addresses social issues, and it's way, way more than we spend on NASA. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps total over $1 trillion of the budget, while NASA clocks in at a little less than $18 billion. Would an additional $18 billion added to a trillion eliminate the social ailments of poverty? I doubt it. But it would destroy the most progressive, optimistic, and peaceful program of the government, namely the space program.


That argument can also be applied to other government programs, but often isn't. Consider that the government currently spends around:


$4 billion per year for the National Park Service

$100 billion per year for tax deductions on mortgage interest payments

$4 billion per year on tax breaks for big oil corporations

$600 billion per year on the Department of Defense


I'm not saying that any of the above are more worthy or not. But I also think that the government should pursue anti-poverty measures AND other goals, like exploring space, preserving natural areas, defending the country, and so on.


Given that the U.S. federal budget is $3.7 trillion per year, surely we can spend a few hundred million of that per year on trying to see if we are alone in the universe by exploring Europa.

SURYADEEP C
SURYADEEP C

If the geysers present on the Europa are present on the Earth, surely they will be on the list of Seven Wonders of the World.

Jiri Roznovjak
Jiri Roznovjak

I wonder, since these geysers shoot water so high, can we look at them, analyze their spectra and figure out what they're composed of?

Eslam Mansour
Eslam Mansour

Great , I think alot of concerning laws and modifications must be done to reach good knowledge about how would be this living new world ...

I think that will be no countries and the whole world will be one ...

in stead of wars between countries that make a lots of people die ...

the world there would be without money ..all would have their humanity needs to have a new raised thinking generation .. that will be also ready after earth is ruined and not available for living or people must go through this and travel.

that would be possible if there is no other serieses of what will be done.



Vonne Pitcher
Vonne Pitcher

There always going to be people starving on earth because there are too many of us. Not much is going to change there.

Of course we have to do this.  It's only human nature to want to explore and find new frontiers.  I wonder if it would also be possible to x-ray through the ice and actually see what is underneath while they are up there.  Wouldn't we be shocked if there were living creatures swimming around.


James Samuel Walsh
James Samuel Walsh

People are starving here on earth Bill Nye. How can you justify spending billions looking for space bugs? Scientists can be cold hearted pricks. 

jeungsoo Park
jeungsoo Park

im exiting about it  i want to see a photograph in deep see on europa. in the proceess of fulfilling this project well i think lots of innovation of technology will be. i am exiting about it too

Susana Lalonde
Susana Lalonde

Awesome, it will be wonderful when this hapends, science has grown & everything is possible!

Sara Coelho
Sara Coelho

what if that water contains some kind of bug that can kill us? or what if it has an extra substance that cures disease...?

Paul Scutts
Paul Scutts

I support robotic exploration of the solar system but not at the expense of human spaceflight. It would be better that in the future we had the technology to go there and have a good look see.

Andujar Cedeno
Andujar Cedeno

Priorities Mr. Nye. Do we have the will to address the needs of seven billion human beings on the planet earth?

Tracy Bullen
Tracy Bullen

How about we hog tie it and drag it closer to the sun. That way, it can thaw out and we can see better, lol, but I'd happily contribute to a mission. 

benjamin hansen
benjamin hansen

Lets do it! You never know what you will find until you take a look.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Sounds like a well thought out plan. We have NASA to thank for many of todays gadgets we use every day. Like Velcro, Microwave Ovens, even some medicines. It would be money well spent. Just imagine the possibilities that could exist if we just take a chance. Most people thought that it would take MANY more years to get to the Moon, But President Kennedy made it a priority because he could see the bigger picture. And that is what we should do again.

LET'S DO IT !!!

Averi Harris
Averi Harris

Nothing about this is proving or disproving God's existence. Depending on your beliefs and opinions one could argue its only expanding our knowledge of his grand creation. Either way its a fascinating exploration and I hope it occurs. @joseph yechout 

David Bowman
David Bowman

@Kevin Pheiffer Or, you know, both the ESA and NASA could just...collaborate? Maybe pool their resources and launch a joint mission to Europa. I'm not sure why this has to be a competition between The United States and the rest of the world (not entirely the rest of the world's fault)

bryan findell
bryan findell

@Kevin Pheiffer Last time I checked the American tax payers were funding these programs. We don't collect taxes from European countries. Raise your own taxes to fund the ESA and go with us. 

Nazim Hatipoglu
Nazim Hatipoglu

@Roy Keltner 3. Finding Life existing in other planets utterly would destroy the understanding of creation as the monolithic religions see them. Thus ending an epoche of Earth history shed in violence and blood because of this religions.

Robert Wade
Robert Wade

@Bob Shuttleworth Russia is refusing to send us up there any more because of the sanctions we placed for mimicing america and being a bully.

Judy Durns
Judy Durns

@Casey Dreier Although I'm all for space exploration, Social Security is not government funded. It was paid for out of my pocket and by my employers. The federal government has been tapping into it for years.

Freddie Rubalcava
Freddie Rubalcava

@Casey Dreier you know im a retired combat veteran and if we skimmed 5% from each branch on useless equipment and stopped interventions in places we dont belong in. We could easily skim 150 billion from DoD.

Roy Keltner
Roy Keltner

@Casey Dreier Exactly, the Government doesn't give me a choice on where it spends it money or things like the 180+ bases around the world and huge military structure would be taking a huge hit and not NASA. This is akin to complaining because your significant other bought a happy meal for your kid when you went out and bought a new Ipod. 

James Samuel Walsh
James Samuel Walsh

@Vonne Pitcher People are starving because there are too many of us? So that justifies spending billions not on helping people, but on finding space bugs. Let me guess. You had a nice dinner tonight? 

Jesse N.
Jesse N.

Exactly. Robots, now and not for a while, do not and cannot use logic unless programmed to follow a certain kind of logic. If an unexpected anomaly occurs during the mission, then between the time the robot sends data recording the event to humans and the humans receiving it, the ship may have already been crashed into by an unexpected asteroid. Humans' curiosity, logic, and ability to improvise will never soon be completed in robotics.

Conwaythe Contaminationist
Conwaythe Contaminationist

@Dwayne LaGrou : NASA was created by the US Government in 1958.


Velcro was invented by a Swiss man named Mestral in 1948


The microwave oven was invented by Percy Spencer from Raytheon in 1946.


There have been no drugs or medicines invented by NASA.


NASA had nothing to do with any of the above.

Robert Wade
Robert Wade

@David Bowman @Kevin Pheiffer because capitalism. Also i believe that NASA and the ESA started collaborating on a mission to mars, but America decided war is more important so we cut NASA's budget further, AND broke our deal with you people. Because jesus will take us to space once we bomb the heathen non believers from this planet.

Nazim Hatipoglu
Nazim Hatipoglu

@James Samuel Walsh @Vonne Pitcher Excuse Vonne Pitcher please. But I think he is right, Earth cannot sustain its exploded population because of industrialism which depends on the excessive use of oil, which in turn is a limited resource. 

Some day in the future we will use it all up and all the people will begin to slaugther themselves to the normal poulation levels. 

Robert Wade
Robert Wade

@James Samuel Walsh @Vonne Pitcher you realize if we were colonizing space it would cover all our non existant jobs, over crowded schools and housing, there would be new surges of resources on the solar market as we mine asteroids, as a person who's relied on food stamps it's only a bandaid on a broken system.

Paul Scutts
Paul Scutts

@James Samuel Walsh @Vonne Pitcher I do not like the fact that people are starving in the world, however, that cannot be blamed on too many people or blame laid at the feet of scientists. People are starving because of the selfishness and discriminatory behaviour of those in authority. Starvation etc will only end when there is a complete re-adjustment to the current human psyche. When this will happen God only knows.

Dave Scanlon
Dave Scanlon

Ultimately, if the human race wants to survive, we have to find a way to colonize other planets. This is certain. You might look at it as "finding space bugs" but that is an oversimplification. Every step we take foward regarding space exploration is a step away from the extinction of humans. When we hear about a massive astroid on a collision course with earth, you'll wish NASA had been properly funded.

Roy Keltner
Roy Keltner

@Conwaythe Contaminationist @Dwayne LaGrou


NASA has IIRC something like 180 patients. While many things were not invented by NASA there call for certain things to be built and used cause the production of those items to become cheaper and thus more likely to become a consumer product. The government sadly would send a probe to eurpoa in a minute if they thought it would give them a new weapon they could kill people with by attaching it to a drone, but finding life? Nah... thats not important. 


Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I never said that they INVENTED them, I said that the fact we use them every day was due to them seeing something that could be used in a new way. NASA HAS had a hand in developing new medicines using micro gravity to help refine them. You can't work with micro gravity on Earth for longer than a minute or so on a jet like the "Vomit Comet" . Space research has all by it self contributed much more then has been spent.

We need to use the information we learn in space to help fight the problems here on Terra Firma. It's been done in the past, And it should continue more in the future.

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