Montana State University

MSU scientist outlines complications in search for life in outer solar system’s watery worlds

September 22, 2016 -- By Marshall Swearingen for the MSU News Service

John Priscu. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN — Montana State University researcher John Priscu made a recent Washington Post headline while speaking at a conference about the search for life in Earth's icy environments and their relationship with the ocean worlds in the outer solar system.

The Sept. 2 story, "Looking for aliens on ocean worlds: 'You’d be in denial to believe there isn’t life out there,'" featured a statement Priscu made at the second annual Ocean Worlds conference. The National Academy of Sciences hosted the conference Aug. 25-26 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Priscu's quotes throughout the story referenced his extensive research of microorganisms found in ocean-like environments beneath thousands of feet of ice in Antarctica. In 2013, Priscu, a professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in MSU's College of Agriculture, led an expedition called WISSARD that, for the first time, discovered bacteria living in the cold, dark environs beneath the Antarctic ice sheet once thought incapable of supporting life.

WISSARD's success is now giving a boost in morale to scientists who are looking for life in far-away but analogous environments, like the ice-capped oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa or Saturn's moon Enceladus, Priscu said.

According to The Washington Post, the 2022 launch of a NASA spacecraft called the Europa Clipper could set the stage for future missions to actually drill through that moon's ice and sample for life. Priscu's WISSARD project is "the closest analog on Earth to drilling through the ice of Europa or Enceladus," the Washington Post story noted.

Priscu said he cautioned the 80 scientists attending the conference that the technical challenges of finding life in Antarctica, much less Europa, are immense. For instance, sampling water from the largest of Antarctica's nearly 400 known subglacial waters, Lake Vostok, has proven elusive because of the area's remoteness, its average air temperature of minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit and the more than 12,000-foot thickness of the ice that overlies the lake.

"If we can't get through 4 kilometers of ice on Earth and sample a subglacial environment (like Lake Vostok) for life," Priscu said, "then how are we going to get through a 10 kilometer shell of ice in the outer solar system, where there's high radiation and all kinds of other nasty things?"

Still, Priscu added, ongoing research in Antarctica could help build the technical capacity for missions to Europa and beyond, in addition to continuing to bolster hopes that life exists in the ice-capped oceans found in the outer solar system.

"People are uplifted knowing that we can find life on Earth in these seemingly inhospitable environments," he said. "Once we get there and look, they are teaming with life."

Contact: Jenny Lavey, communications director, MSU College of Agriculture, (406) 994-7866 or jennifer.lavey@montana.edu

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