Original Europa Thesis Just Too Alien

by Terence Dickinson

The Sunday Star - Toronto
April 13, 1997
Context Section, page F8

At a news conference Wednesday, NASA scientists presented the latest images from the Galileo spacecraft that is in orbit around Jupiter. The photos, showing yawning cracks and blocks of ice the size of house on Jupiter's moon, Europa, offer the most compelling evidence yet that there is an ocean of water, possibly harboring life, beneath the frozen surface of this world, which is roughly the size of the Earth's moon.

It's a strange story, but 18 years ago I was there when the first person on Earth realised what Europa is really like. It was July 10, 1979, just hours after the American space probe Voyager 2 had cruised near Jupiter and its family of 16 moons. I was standing beside science writer Richard Hoagland at Voyager mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, gazing intently at one of the television monitors displaying Voyager 2 images of Europa.

Nobody had ever seen anything like Europa before, Instead of the usual cratered landscape, Europa's surface is smooth, like a billiard ball. The highest resolution images did reveal some detail - low ridges and linear features covering the surface in apparently random patterns - but at first glance it was baffling. Then Hoagland said, almost in a whisper, "Its a crust of ice. And there's water below it."

He stood there, thinking about what he had just said, then asked me if I would be interested in an article on the idea. At the time, I was editor of 'Star & Sky', an American popular-level astronomy magazine that has long since ceased publication. I readily accepted.

Later, as he was working on the article, Hoagland phoned me from his home in Oakland, California, to tell me, with growing enthusiasm, about how all the pieces fit. Europa, he said, had a rocky core that was heated by gravitational tugging from Jupiter's three other large moons. As those moons swung close to Europa, then retreated, the varying gravitational forces squeezed and relaxed the rocky core, heating it in the process.

This, he said, would melt the icy crust that apparently cloaks the Jovian moon. Only the outer surface, which is exposed to the intense cold of space, remains frozen. The ocean below could easily contain more water than is in Earth's oceans. And like in Earth's oceans, he went on, life could exist near volcanic vents.

Hoagland's ideas about Europa appeared as the cover story in the January, 1980, issue of 'Star & Sky'. Given the potential importance of the concept, I issued a news release to coincide with the issue's publication. It was picked up by all the major news services and the story ran in hundreds of newspapers. It appeared in 'The Toronto Star' on December. 27, 1979, under the headline 'By Jupiter! Maybe there is alien life in space'.

Then, instead of Hoagland's ideas appearing in textbooks, NASA brochures and other publications about the solar system, they were ignored. Today, Hoagland almost never receives credit for his Europa work. Why? He was never part of establishment science and he has moved much further from it than he was back in 1979. Today, he champions the idea that aliens built a rock formation called the 'face' on Mars. Few scientists want to be even remotely associated with a "kook", no matter how brilliant his ideas.

(Terence Dickinson is editor of 'Skynews Magazine' and the author of several guidebooks for backyard astronomers)