“Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when they have had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes in values and attitudes and behavior.”
– Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs (p 183).
With 67 confirmed natural satellites, Jupiter, the fifth planet out from our home star, is the solar-bound, cosmic continent with the greatest number of satellite islands. The four largest are typically referred to as the Galilean moons, after Galileo Galilei, who discovered them in the 17th century. Of this Jovian quartet, Europa is the smallest and shares a few notable characteristics with our own brilliant, reflective, constantly-phasing Lady Luna. They are roughly the same size, to begin with, and both are in a tidal lock with the planet around which they revolve. From Jupiter there would be a far side of this moon that would never be seen from the surface.
Along with Jupiter’s gravitational pull, Europa is tugged at by two fellow Jovian moons, causing not only an elliptical orbit but, through the stretching and squeezing the moon endures, internal heat. This heat produces not just the linae (lines) and lenticulae (dark spots) that add character to the moon’s relatively smooth, icy crust, but also produces a 106-mile deep subsurface waterworld composed of twice as much blue gold as all Gaean oceans combined. This heat also generates plate tectonics, a process previously only known to occur on earth and which is thought by some to be a crucial factor in the development of life here.
On Europa, the plates in question are ice and tectonics would explain its young and largely crater-free surface. Though this probably only takes place a mile or so below the roughly 19 mile thick crust of ice, it ultimately would affect the fluid depths. At the same time the waters below rise to eventually become the surface ice. As a consequence tectonics has, along with the suspicions of a subsurface ocean, fueled hopes that the liquid world between the ocean floor and the thick, solidified shell might be fertile with aquatic life.
Estimations place this moon, Europa, at roughly 4.5 billion years of age, the same age as Jupiter and the Earth. Life on earth first began in the oceans; perhaps the aquatic life on Europa never left it. What might life be like there now? How could we even begin to imagine?
It might be best to consider the kind of life found in the deepest parts of our own oceans, for one thing. The deeper you go, the more the waters scatter the human-visible sunlight, and the area we are most familiar with stretches down to only about ⅛ of a mile below the surface. Below this there is a twilight area where photosynthesis cannot take place. Plants cannot exist. This stretches from about ⅛ of a mile to a depth that is, if my Google conversions are correct, roughly ⅗ of a mile down — and in any case, still less than a mile. Life continues to exist, however, feeding mainly off the decay and waste that snows down from above.
Our deepest watery depths reside in the Pacific Ocean in an area known as the Mariana Trench. It is roughly 1,580 miles long, 43 miles thick and perhaps seven miles down. Here, in a land where the sun truly does not shine, the temperatures at the floor can drop to one degree centigrade. Despite these conditions, life, however sparse, persists at occupying the void. Instead of siphoning their energy from the sun, they turn to deep sea vents, using a process known as chemosynthesis to convert that energy into nomnoms. These bottom-dwellers feed off of both the remaining death-snow and each other.
If you have ever seen a documentary on the creatures of the deep ocean, you do not need to be told how fucking strange, even frightening they are. Our highest hopes as relatively isolated and rational hominids are cautiously, conservatively narrowed down to simple forms of life, of course, but still: our rampant monkeyminds make us wonder if this Jovian moon’s conditions would, after sufficient investigation, provide evidence for what we would be forced, forced, forced to regard as ETI.
Given conditions on Europa, could an aquatic intelligence have developed by now? What might such an aquatic ETI be like?
My mind comes immediately to the octopus, a form of marine life that has continued to fascinate me the more I come to learn of it, thus far only through alluring documentaries I began watching online. All octopuses are considered to be highly intelligent. They are one-mouthed, one-beaked, two-eyed, eight-legged and bilaterally symmetrical invertebrates nearly or entirely void of skeletons. They emerged on earth some 296 million years ago and the presently 300 or so species inhabit countless oceanic regions — right down to the darkest depths of the ocean floor.
An octopus known as the Grimpoteuthis, nicknamed the Dumbo Octopus due to its ear-like fins flapping up and down, has been observed to stretch at its greatest up to a foot in length, weighing at some 13 pounds. Though existing at depths of up to roughly 4 miles, this is shy, so far as we have seen, of the seven mile trench and certainly of the 106-mile depths of Europa below the 19 miles of ice, it is nonetheless meaningful that a creature known for such intelligence lives in some of the deepest depths we presently know.
Consider that this vast ocean on Europa were indeed filled with aquatic life, some, at least one species of which constitutes ETI. Say that it developed in the form of an octopus. How different would they be given that they had all evolved in a state of total deprivation and isolation from the sky? The range of their perceptions may be ill-equipped to pick up on much of any evidence of a universe beyond the ice. Despite the potentially advanced intelligence of some of these aquatic organisms, nothing in their observable universe would directly suggest anything beyond their fluid pocket world and their seemingly absolute ceiling of ice.
Technologically-speaking, it seems perfectly conceivable that an advanced probe could be sent to the Jovian Europa and drill through the icy shell. It would be costly, however. Thankfully the heat-generating squeeze-stretch cycle can also express its inner self in a far more violent and (for us) advantageous form: fluid bursts through the sealed surface as geysers, sharting the hidden ocean’s innards out into the great beyond. A probe could be sent to Europa and take samples as it orbits and journeys through the geysers, potentially providing evidence of subsurface aquatic life at a cost far lower than drilling.
With that said, such a probe, if properly equipped, could then swing down to the surface to collect samples of the surface ice, revealing in not one but two of the readily-available sneak-peek fashions what mind-blowing alien ecosystems might be thriving deep beneath the well-below-freezing, misleadingly dead-white, splotched and broken skin. If it turns out the probe captures evidence of life on the surface or from the geysers, this would surely spawn an effort to explore this extraterrestrial life further. And so, in the end, we may find the impetus and necessary funding to drill through that thick, thick, thick fucking ice after all and finally find what our species has been at once thirsty for and deeply terrified of all along: evidence of extraterrestrial life.
As human beings we labor to wrap our minds around our own position in the grand scheme of things, but how would it be for a creature, a history of planetary life, which has never experienced the universe beyond its ice-concealed world, had never had a chance to spy the sky — and indeed, perhaps did not even evolve the capacity to conceptualize the notion? If we were to break the ice, could they survive in such a post-aquatic apocalypse — physically or psychologically?