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Life could exist in Jupiter's clouds, according to Belfast scientists

The concentration of water vapour in the clouds may be enough to sustain life.

Jupiter, the fifth plant from the sun
Jupiter, the fifth plant from the sun
Image: Shutterstock/NASA images

LIFE IN JUPITER’S clouds could be possible, according to a new research report led by a Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) scientist.

The clouds surrounding the planet Jupiter have water conditions that would allow Earth-like life to exist, a research project from the School of Biological Sciences found, led by Dr John Hallsworth.

The clouds contain a high enough water concentration, as well as the correct temperature, to sustain life.

Jupiter is a gaseous planet made mostly of hydrogen and helium. It is made of three distinct cloud layers, according to NASA, with the top layer most likely being made of ammonia ice, the middle layer likely of ammonium hydrosulfide crystals, and the innermost layer may be of water ice and vapor.

The QUB research report also found that life would not be possible in the sulphuric gasses surrounding the planet Venus, disproving a claim proposed in a different study by an independent team of scientists last year.

Dr Hallsworth said that “the conditions of water and temperature within Jupiter’s clouds could allow microbial-type life to subsist, assuming that other requirements such as nutrients are present”.

“This is a timely finding given that NASA and the European Space Agency just announced three missions to Venus in the coming years,” he also said. “One of these will take measurements of Venus’s atmosphere that we will be able to compare with our finding.” 

Space exploration has previously focused on finding life in areas where large bodies of water exist or existed, QUB said in a press statement. However, the new research shows that it isn’t what quantity of water that makes life viable, but the concentration of water molecules, known as water activity.

“The search for extraterrestrial life has sometimes been a bit simplistic in its attitude to water,” said Dr Philip Ball, British co-author of the report and expert on physics and chemical biology of water.

“As our work shows, it’s not enough to say that liquid water equates with habitability. We’ve got to think too about how Earth-like organisms actually use it – which shows us that we then have to ask how much of the water is actually available for those biological uses.” 

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Dr Hallworth said: “While our research doesn’t claim that alien (microbial-type) life does exist on other planets in our solar system, it shows that if the water activity and other conditions are right, then such life could exist in places where we haven’t previously been looking.”

The research team measured the water activity in the atmospheres of the planets Venus and Jupiter, to come to their conclusion. This was done without a model and was “based only on direct observations of pressure, temperature, and water concentration”, according to co-author of the report and NASA-based planetary scientist Professor Christopher McKay.

Dr Hallsworth said that the calculations were performed for Mars and Earth also, and show they can be done for planets outside of our solar system. 

This discovery also comes after it was scientists theorised in late 2019 that there could be life in the ocean beneath the icy outer crust of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

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