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Icy bodies: Europa and elsewhere

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The new discipline of astrobiology that is, the science of searching for extraterrestrial life is not only rapdly growing, but has also captured the public imagination. This free course, Icy bodies: Europa and elsewhere, examines the emergence of icy satellites of distant planets as potential sites of extraterrestrial life, looks at the potential for life on Jupiter's moon Europa, and speculates on the ethics of searching for life elsewhere in the solar system.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • discuss processes upon and within, and internal structure of, differentiated icy bodies (primarily large satellites) in comparison with the terrestrial planets
  • describe the conditions that may be required to originate and foster life in an icy body and discuss the likelihood of their having occurred
  • recognise the moral and ethical issues of landing spacecraft on potential life-bearing worlds and appreciate the need for appropriate professional codes of conduct in this respect.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 17 hours
  • Updated Wednesday 16th March 2016
  • Intermediate level
  • Posted under Physics and Astronomy
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Icy bodies: Europa and elsewhere


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Until the 1980s, the icy satellites of the outer planets were scarcely thought of as places where life could ever have existed. Few could have imagined that one of them, Europa, would within twenty years have become the rival of Mars as a priority for astrobiological study. This course recounts the history of our changing perceptions of the icy satellites, examines the available evidence for their internal structures, and considers the niches offered for life to begin and to be sustained. In this context, the 'habitable zone' embraces settings devoid of both sunlight and an atmosphere. These are areas where life could survive on the energy from chemical reactions made possible by the discharge of hot chemically enriched fluids through vents on the floor of an ocean capped by a thick layer of ice. Note that 'ice' does not necessarily mean just frozen water. In the outer Solar System, although H2O is usually the dominant component, ice can incorporate other frozen volatiles such as NH3, CO2, CO, CH4 and N2.

This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University course S283 Planetary science and the search for life [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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