What is that glow from Europa?
By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor
Growing up in a military family meant a life of impermanence. My dad got a new duty station every two to three years, so we changed houses about as frequently as other kids changed their lunchboxes. That meant wall decorations were limited to stuff that could be easily removed and spackled over. One stubbornly sticky bit of décor I always coveted on friends’ bedroom ceilings was an array of glow-in-the-dark stars. The soft green glow was so calming, and the joy of tracing my own new constellations was endless. Perhaps that’s why I was immediately tickled this week by the news that a moon orbiting Jupiter may be gifting the solar system with its own gentle glow.
The icy moon Europa (pictured above) is already a cool scientific target because it likely hosts a deep ocean under its frozen crust, a body of salty liquid that could harbor alien life. Now, as our Maya Wei-Haas reports, scientists trying to better understand the moon’s composition have revealed that a constant stream of radiation from nearby Jupiter could be feeding energy into Europa’s ice, causing it to produce its own glow on the darkened side that faces away from the sun.
“It would be a nice fairytale-like thing to stand on Europa and see,” said NASA astrophysicist Murthy Gudipati. He suggests that spacecraft headed to Europa in a few years could use such a glow to map the surface and in turn tease out what types of chemicals lurk in the buried ocean.
NASA is also making waves closer to home this week, as the space agency prepares for the SpaceX Crew-1 launch—the first mission that will use a commercial rocket and capsule to send astronauts for a long-term stay in the International Space Station. In July, SpaceX showed what was possible during its Demo-2 mission, which sent two astronauts on a test ride to the ISS. In a launch currently scheduled for Saturday, the crew riding the company’s craft will embark on the first working mission launched from U.S. soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
The mission is yet another milestone for SpaceX, which has leapt ahead of its competitors to become NASA’s go-to ride into orbit. Even now, the company is working on multiple fronts to push farther into the final frontier. SpaceX is among the companies bidding to build a lunar lander for NASA’s current plan to return to the moon. The project, dubbed Artemis after the Greek goddess, includes the eventual goal of using the moon as a waystation for astronauts headed to Mars. The red planet has been an obsession for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, and the impatient tech pioneer is also building his own prototype launch vehicle in Texas, dubbed Starship, that he hopes will get humans to Mars even faster.
Both Artemis and Starship are on ambitious timelines, and it’s a gamble whether the technology needed to send humans off Earth for long stretches of time will materialize. But for someone used to finding new homes, it’s a beautiful dream to imagine that one day, a person will step off a SpaceX capsule and stand on Europa to witness that fairy-tale glow.
Do you get this daily? If not, sign up here or forward to a friend.
Today in a minute
Lingering hurricanes: Not only did we break a record for the number of named storms in a hurricane season, these modern storms are sticking around longer over land and affecting more communities, a study out today says. In 1960, a hurricane that made landfall would decay by 75 percent in the course of a day. Today, a hurricane making landfall decays by only about 50 percent in the same amount of time, Nat Geo's Sarah Gibbens reports. Here’s a look at what's causing the hurricane boom.
No. Really. Wear a mask: That’s what President-elect Joe Biden asked Americans this week, saying the move would save tens of thousands of lives. He also appointed 13 respected medical and scientific experts to a transition committee aimed at creating a nationwide effort to fight the coronavirus, which has taken 240,000 American lives and infected more than 10.2 million people since February.
Promising news: This week began with a purported breakthrough on a proposed COVID-19 vaccine by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech, and emergency-use FDA approval of an antibody treatment by Lilly. While the medical community applauded Pfizer’s announcement that its vaccine candidate seems to be 90 percent effective in clinical trials, other experts called the lack of data presented with that claim “very concerning,” Sarah Elizabeth Richards reports for Nat Geo. Here’s our look at proposed vaccines.
Listening to the deep sea: Figuring out clues to Europa isn’t the only reason to explore the deepest seas on Earth. Among the questions scientists are working on: What does a hydrothermal vent sound like? Acousticians believe that sound may be the quickest, cheapest way to monitor one of the most mysterious realms of the ocean, the New York Times reports. “You need to know what the habitat sounds like when it’s healthy,” deep-sea biologist Chong Chen says.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Down in Pecos: At one time, this Texas town helped transform America’s rise as an energy exporter. Now, however, Pecos is struggling as energy demand has collapsed amid the pandemic. Here, among hundreds of wells in one of the largest natural gas fields in the world, photographer Ed Kashi captured a gas flare through the window of a broken-down bus.
Related: Methane, a dirty secret of oil and gas production
The night skies
Moon meets Venus and Mercury: Early risers tomorrow and Friday are in for a celestial treat as the moon glides by two visible neighboring worlds. About 45 minutes before sunrise tomorrow, look southeast for a beautifully thin crescent moon next to super-brilliant star-like Venus. On Friday morning, the moon will sink toward the horizon and appear sandwiched between Venus, on top, and Mercury, below. The innermost planet is having its best viewing all this week as it reaches its maximum distance from the sun, as viewed from Earth. However, tiny Mercury looks like a faint dot in the glow of sunrise, and you may need binoculars to initially find it. Also watch for shooting stars late tonight and early tomorrow as the Northern Taurid meteor shower peaks with five to 10 meteors an hour. Individual meteors appear to radiate from its namesake constellation Taurus, which appears to rise in the east late at night. —Andrew Fazekas
Our fleet neighbor: All about the fast-moving planet Mercury
The big takeaway
Building a community: What college student hasn’t gotten COVID-19 this year? If students go to one of these schools, there’s a good chance they escaped the pandemic. Rebecca Renner explores why schools such as Sarah Lawrence or Howard University have largely sidestepped the illness that has struck full-force at Clemson, Florida, Penn State, Ohio State, or Indiana. One is a high number of remote learners. Others are strict checklists and campus camaraderie, says Sarah Lawrence president Cristle Collins Judd. “A key part for us was active communication with our students about caring for each other as a community,” says Judd. (Below, campus infections across the U.S.)
In a few words
Did a friend forward this to you?
On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The last glimpse
He walked the walk: He didn’t have to do it, but beloved Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek was adamant about starting and hosting the annual National Geographic Bee. For 25 years, he poured his passion for geography into contestants who were a decade or three younger than the usual guests on his day job. “I learned geography by looking through geography books and [atlases] and paying attention to all of the countries and also by reading National Geographic magazines,” he told us in 2013. “We couldn't always afford them, but I made it a point to go to a lot of doctor and dentist appointments.” Trebek, 80, who had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, died on Sunday. (Pictured above, Trebek moderating the 2011 National Geographic Bee.)