Europa, one of Jupiter’s many moons, appears to have a body of water the size of the North American Great Lakes beneath its icy surface, according to a new study by a researcher from the University of Texas at Austin. The study was published today in the scientific journal Nature.
“It’s a lake that’s trapped inside the ice shell,” lead author Dr. Britney Schmidt said of the discovery. “It’s formed by warm material moving up from the bottom, causing the middle of the ice shell to melt. That presence of the water below breaks up the surface, and makes it look like icebergs and floating broken up ice.”
“It was just a huge ‘a-ha’ moment for us,” she said of the discovery.
The study suggests there is a greater likelihood that Europa could support life, because the surface of the moon and the water underneath that icy crust are interacting a lot more than scientists previously thought.
“We know that ice-covered oceans are teeming with life here on Earth, and there’s no reason to expect it would be different on Europa,” Schmidt said.
The study was conducted using data collected with NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. NASA said in a statement that while the study’s authors have good reason to believe their findings are correct, “the only true confirmation of their presence would come from a future spacecraft mission designed to probe the ice shell.”
You can watch an animation of the findings here.