Europa, one of Jupiter's largest moons, has long been a topic of interest for astronomers and astrobiologists alike. This is due to the possibility that the moon harbors a subsurface ocean beneath its frozen exterior, which could contain the conditions necessary for life to exist. In this blog post, we will explore what life might be like below the frozen ice on Europa and let you know about an exciting STEM-based educational learning experience we are creating in collaboration with Edge at Terc.
Image 1 - A surface view from our Europa VR experience (WIP) where temperatures are unimaginably cold (approx -225°F). The brightness is our estimation of the expected light hitting the surface, which is about 1/25 that of what we observe on earth.
Firstly, it's important to note that any life on Europa would likely be vastly different from the life we know on Earth. For one, the environment would be incredibly harsh, with surface temperatures estimated to average around -260°F (-162°C) and warming(!) to -225°F at the equator. Any organisms living on Europa would need to be adapted to these extreme conditions, potentially relying on unique metabolic processes to survive.
Additionally, the lack of sunlight on Europa [about means that any life would likely need to obtain its energy from alternative sources, such as chemical reactions. This is similar to the way some organisms on Earth that live in deep-sea hydrothermal vents obtain energy.
Image 2 - A view from our Europa VR experience (WIP) showing some alien life forms [Minos] around hydrothermal vents. See here for more info
Despite these challenging conditions, scientists believe that there is a good chance that life could exist on Europa. The presence of a subsurface ocean means that there may be liquid water and nutrients available, providing the necessary building blocks for life to emerge.
So, what might life be like below the frozen ice on Europa?
It's difficult to say for certain, but it's possible that organisms could exist in the form of small, simple organisms such as bacteria or archaea. These organisms would likely live in the subsurface ocean, potentially feeding on chemicals and minerals dissolved in the water. These simple organisms could potentially lead to an underwater ecosystem consisting of plantlife, jellyfish, and even advanced life in the form of cephalopods. It is feasible that this ecosystem has existed for millions or billions of years.
Image 3- Screenshots from animation tests of possible jellyfish and sponges found on Europa. These lifeforms were inspired from the research and imagination of Landmark College, who like MXTreality are collaborating with Terc.
How advanced could Europan lifeforms be?
This is where the fun begins, and the core of what we are developing. Once we start to imagine the possibilities, we start to create an ecosystem, one in which visitors from earth may accidentally disrupt. Octopus' on earth are known to be very intelligent and have an ability to communicate. In Europa, we take this concept to an entirely new level. Players will explore a space base, solve clues in an escape room fashion, and communicate with the indigenous Minos.
Overall, life on Europa is a fascinating topic of exploration and discovery. While the conditions below the frozen ice may be incredibly harsh, the possibility of finding even simple forms of life would be a groundbreaking discovery, offering insights into the origins and evolution of life in our solar system and beyond.
Europa, EuropaVR, Mission Europa, Europa Prime, and uniVRsal are project names for the STEM-based educational game developed by MXTreality for and with EdGE at TERC, terc.edu/edge, as part of an NSF-funded project (#2005447) researching and developing a STEM-based VR game for a broad audience, including neurodivergent players. This work is part of a collaboration between MXTreality & TERC to broaden participation in informal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) learning for all, yet with a special focus on neuro-diverse and autistic learners through the magic offered via virtual reality. The game is expected to launch in alpha in late 2023.
NSF Grant: DRL-2005447
For more information, please see: