It’s the stuff of dreams for space explorers. Scientists identify liquid water — the key ingredient to life — on another world, suggesting that we may not be the only living beings in our Solar System. That’s right: aliens.
But then that dream goes horribly wrong. A space mission sent to that distant world encounters horrifying hardships, but they endure in pursuit of answering the ultimate question: Are we truly alone in the universe? This is the basic gist of the 2013 space sci-fi thriller, Europa Report, but it also feels like a glimpse into our future as private space missions like SpaceX hope to send humans to Mars — and maybe even other planets — in the coming decades.
Yet the movie’s plot also (sort of) parallels the recent scientific discoveries around Europa, all of which tease the potential for life on Europa — an icy moon of Jupiter. Inverse spoke with Paul Byrne, an associate professor of planetary science at Washington University in St. Louis, to answer the burning question: Are there aliens on Europa? Byrne says we can’t say for certain whether alien life thrives on Europa, but it does have “some of the ingredients you'd want for a habitable environment.”
But it’s the simple potential for alien life that makes Europa Report thrilling — and that’s also one of the reasons why NASA is planning to send a spacecraft to surveil the planet in 2024. So let’s dive right in.
Is there an ocean on Europa?
We understand early on in the movie that a private space company, Europa Ventures, has sent a crewed mission to Jupiter’s moon following the discovery of “subsurface lakes of liquid.” In other words, they found a watery ocean under the surface of the moon’s icy crust.
As it turns out, the movie premise isn’t too far off from the real science, with one key caveat: We haven’t 100 percent confirmed the presence of a subsurface ocean, but all the evidence suggests it’s there. NASA’s website for the Europa Clipper mission reads, “Scientists are almost certain a vast ocean lies beneath Europa’s icy shell.”
Byrne says there are many “independent lines of evidence” that make it “very likely” an ocean exists under the surface of Europa.
We know the composition of the icy surface of Europa pretty well from previous flybys of spacecraft like the Voyager and Galileo. It might be cold on the surface, but there’s a reasonable chance there’s heat flow underneath the crust, which could lead to ice melting, and thus liquid water. Europa isn’t alone in that regard. Scientists also think one of Jupiter’s other moons, Ganymede, could contain a substantial subsurface ocean.
“Once you start making some basic assumptions about what the inside [of Europa] is probably like, it becomes very hard to avoid the conclusion that there's liquid water under the solid water,” Byrne says.
Odd cracks in Europa’s icy surface, known as “chaos terrains,” also increase the likelihood of a liquid ocean underneath. Europa Report centers on a real-life chaos terrain known as the Conamara Chaos, under which they believe life may thrive. What formed these large icy cracks? Potentially liquid water that emerged from the ice and froze. As NASA explains in a 2013 article:
As plumes of warm ocean water rise to the subsurface, massive lakes develop inside the moon's crust — some larger than North America's Great Lakes combined. Over time, the ice directly above these lakes collapses, splintering into floating geometric fragments that rotate, raft and resettle into all kinds of chaotic configurations.
“That's not direct evidence that there's liquid water ocean there, but it does suggest that there's liquid water inside the shell,” Byrne says.
Byrne adds, “the signs are very encouraging that there's liquid water ocean there.”
We’ve established that there’s a decent likelihood a subsurface ocean exists on Europa, just like the movie suggests. But that doesn’t mean we could send humans to Jupiter’s moon tomorrow to check it out.
Would we really send a crewed mission to Europa?
In Europa Report, Samantha Unger — the CEO of the company organizing the mission to Europa — makes the case for why she chose to send a crewed mission with humans instead of just sending a robot lander like Perseverance or a spacecraft like Europa Clipper.
“You get one shot. An unmanned mission simply wasn’t going to cut it. You put men and women into space because they have the strength to face the cosmic odds,” Unger explains.
But while Byrne is a fan of sending human explorers into space, it’s probably not a good idea to humans to jet off to Europa — for several reasons.
First: it’s just not plausible for logistical reasons. Byrne says Jupiter’s system is so far away that it’s unlikely humans will get there until the end of this century. Mars is a bit more plausible, but humans still probably won’t walk on Mars until the 2040s, he guesses. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility that private space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin will still try to send a crewed expedition to Europa, not unlike the private space company featured in the movie.
“...the signs are very encouraging that there's liquid water ocean there.”
“We barely have the capability of putting humans onto the space station, and we're still several years from humans walking on the Moon again,” Byrne adds.
Second, there’s a high probability the radiation on Europa will give you cancer and kill you, Byrne says. While the movie shows the crew carefully monitoring radiation levels , it’s still likely too great a risk for crew members to bear in real life, unless we can implement some kind of elaborate and — very expensive — shielding to protect future space explorers.
“The radiation environment at Europa is far, far too hostile for humans to safely endure for very long,” Byrne
That being said, NASA is planning to send the robotic Europa Clipper spacecraft to conduct a detailed survey of the moon’s magnetic field, which could yield further evidence of subsurface oceans. According to Byrne, the spacecraft will be able to avoid radiation issues by taking a limited number of “deep dives” into Jupiter’s radiation-heavy environment rather than orbiting the planet, so sending a spacecraft for a Europa mission is still very much plausible.
The Europa Clipper launch date is set for October 2024. According to NASA, the mission could “determine if Europa harbors conditions suitable for life.”
Could Europa really host alien life?
In both Europa Report and in real life, scientists are very excited by the prospect of life on Jupiter’s moon. We won’t get into any spoilers, but it’s worth asking the question: could there really be life on Europa?
“Wherever we have found water, we have found life,” a representative of the private space company says confidently in the movie. He goes on to add that the prospect of single-celled life forms in our solar system might not just be “possible” but, in fact, “probable.” “
But Byrne says there are reasons we should be skeptical about Europa’s prospects for life currently.
“I know a lot of my colleagues are pretty confident that it could be [life]. I have the view that it's very unlikely there’s life there today,” Byrne says.
According to Byrne, it’s difficult for any planetary biosphere to maintain enough chemical energy to provide a food supply to “form and sustain life” for a long period of time, even microbial life.
“I think it's extremely unlikely and Europa isn't that big,” he adds. “I think you need a large world like Earth.”
The real problem is that scientists still don’t understand the biochemical processes that gave rise to life on Earth in the first place — a process known as abiogenesis. You generally need three components for life to form: liquid water, a heat source, and organic compounds. According to Byrne, Europa “almost certainly” has all three factors, so that’s why many scientists think the moon is a prime candidate for habitability. But the mere presence of these factors doesn’t guarantee life will form — it’s just a prerequisite.
“Perhaps [Europa] once had life, but it's very difficult for me to envisage that life sustaining over four and a half billion years,” Byrne says.
So, in short, Europa Report is probably getting ahead of the real-life science by sending a crewed mission to Jupiter’s moon, but who knows? Maybe the Europa Clipper mission will finally give us the smoking gun we need to verify life could indeed exist on this distant, icy moon. Space explorers can hope, at the least.
Europa Report is streaming now on Amazon Prime.