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Looking for Life on Jupiter’s Icy Moons

By Mason Spirit contributor on April 1, 2010

Paul Cooper in his lab.

Think of the coldest place on Earth—and then multiply that cold dozens of times. That’s the average temperature of some of the moons orbiting Jupiter.

Evidence suggests that oceans may lie beneath the icy surfaces of Jupiter’s moons Titan and Europa. But could living organisms possibly survive in such a place? Mason biochemist Paul Cooper plans to find out.

Working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA, Cooper and his research team recently received a grant that will help them look at these icy worlds.

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 subsurface oceans.

Prior to joining Mason, Cooper worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where 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 the process.

In his Astrophysical Ice and Matrix-Isolation Spectroscopy Laboratory on the Fairfax Campus, Cooper is taking common biological molecules, such as amino acids, DNA, and 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 to someday compare these data with actual samples from Jupiter’s moons.

—Tara Laskowski, MFA ’05

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