The Truth Is Out There: Searching for Life on Jupiter’s Moons

Posted: August 3, 2009 at 1:04 am, Last Updated: August 13, 2009 at 4:06 pm

By Tara Laskowski

Paul Cooper. Creative Services photo

Mason scientist Paul Cooper is interested in the chemistry of what occurs in solid ice. Creative Services photo

Think Alaska, Siberia, the Arctic — some of the coldest places on Earth — and then multiply that cold dozens of times. That gives you the average temperature of some of the moons orbiting around Jupiter.

Could living organisms possibly survive on such a place?

Paul Cooper, Mason assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is on a team dedicated to finding the answer to that question.

Working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech/NASA, Cooper and the team recently received a grant that will help them look at the icy worlds of the moons of Jupiter to see if these moons could possibly harbor life.

There is evidence that suggests that oceans or seas may lie beneath the icy surfaces of moons such as Titan or Europa. But can these bodies of water contain any living organisms?

Cooper, who is interested in the chemistry of what occurs in solid ice, believes that it is possible.

“We’re taking the approach of just assuming there is life,” he says.

Cooper explains that Jupiter has a strong magnetic field that traps charged particles. The icy moons orbit within this magnetic field, so they are constantly exposed to high radiation. Because life has to have a source of energy, this radiation might provide the energy needed to sustain biological processes in the sub-surface oceans.

“However, too much radiation can destroy life, and so this is one aspect we are investigating.”

In his Astrophysical Ice and Matrix-Isolation Spectroscopy Laboratory (AIMIS) on the Fairfax Campus, Cooper is taking common biological molecules — amino acids, DNA, proteins — and freezing them in water.

He will then expose the ice to radiation to see what new molecules form as the biological molecules break down. He hopes they will someday be able to compare this data with actual samples from Jupiter’s moons.

The laboratory is also trying to make biological molecules from ices.

Simple amino acids, which are the building blocks of life, may actually be synthesized in space environments where icy mixtures of water, methane and ammonia are exposed to radiation, Cooper explains.

Paul Cooper in the lab. Creative Services photo

In his Fairfax Campus lab, Paul Cooper uses cryogenic equipment to re-create temperatures as low as -269 degrees Celsius (-452 F) . Creative Services photo

“If we can make amino acids from irradiating icy mixtures, then perhaps this is part of the story of how life gets started in the universe.”

On Earth, most living organisms require oxygen and liquid water to survive. Research has revealed that Europa has these two critical requirements. Liquid water exists in the sub-surface ocean of Europa, and oxygen is produced when its icy surface is exposed to radiation.

During Cooper’s two years working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., prior to joining Mason, he discovered a previously unknown chemical reaction that explains how oxygen is produced in irradiated ice. He is continuing this work at Mason to further understand this process.

“We’re basically re-creating Europa here at Mason,” he says.

Surface temperatures of the moons can be around –180 degrees Celsius (–292 F), and the cryogenic equipment Cooper uses can re-create temperatures as low as –269 degrees Celsius (–452 F).

That makes even the coldest day of the year in winter on Earth seem like a cozy night by the fire.

Write to mediarel at