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Monday, December 29, 1997 Published at 11:13 GMT


Europa is salty - and may have harboured an ocean
image: [ Galileo - artists impression ]
Galileo - artists impression

The Galileo space probe to Jupiter has found evidence of salts on the frozen moon Europa, boosting the possibility that the moon has an ocean that once might have harboured life.

Signs of magnesium sulphate, a mineral normally formed on Earth where salt water evaporates, were picked up on Europa by analysis of light reflected off the surface.

It could mean a liquid ocean rich in brine exists or recently existed beneath Europa's crackled, frozen expanses, say experts.

"That briny water somehow was erupted or extruded or squirted to the surface" where evaporation took place, said Tom McCord, University of Hawaii professor and a Galileo investigator.

Salts like those on Europa can be found in dry lake beds in the Earth's deserts, McCord said.

Europa, the smallest of Jupiter's four major moons, is the subject of an extended study by Nasa because it is likely to have two important ingredients for life - water and internal heat caused by tidal forces.

The Galileo team presented its findings and images from the mission on Wednesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting.

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