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Jupiter's second largest moon, Callisto, may have a liquid ocean tucked under its icy, cratered crust, according to scientists studying data gathered by NASA's Galileo spacecraft.
The Galileo findings, to be published in the Oct. 22 issue of the journal Nature, reveal similarities between Callisto and another of Jupiter's moons, Europa, which has already displayed strong evidence of a subsurface ocean.
"Until now, we thought Callisto was a dead and boring moon, just a hunk of rock and ice," said Dr. Margaret Kivelson, space physics professor at UCLA and principal investigator for Galileo's magnetometer instrument, which measures magnetic fields around Jupiter and its moons. "The new data certainly suggest that something is hidden below Callisto's surface, and that something may very well be a salty ocean."
This premise was inspired by Galileo data indicating electrical currents flowing near Europa's surface cause changes in Europa's magnetic field. "This seemed to fit nicely with other data supporting the idea that beneath Europa's icy crust, a liquid ocean might be serving as a conductor of electricity," said Kivelson.
Armed with that information, Kivelson and UCLA colleagues Drs. Krishan K. Khurana, Raymond J. Walker, and Christopher T. Russell set out to test a similar theory about Callisto, "although it seemed far-fetched at the time," Kivelson said. The team went back and studied data obtained during Galileo's flybys of Callisto in November 1996, and June and September of 1997.
Kivelson and her colleagues found signs that Callisto's magnetic field, like Europa's, is variable, which can be explained by the presence of varying electrical currents associated with Jupiter that flow near Callisto's surface. Their next challenge was to discover the source of the currents.
"Because Callisto's atmosphere is extremely tenuous and lacking in charged particles, it would not be sufficient to generate Callisto's magnetic field; nor would Callisto's icy crust be a good conductor, but there very well could be a layer of melted ice underneath," Kivelson said. "If this liquid were salty like Earth's oceans, it could carry sufficient electrical currents to produce the magnetic field."
Lending further credence to the premise of a subsurface ocean on Callisto, Galileo data showed that electrical currents were flowing in opposite directions at different times. "This is a key signature consistent with the idea of a salty ocean," Khurana added, "because it shows that Callisto's response, like Europa's, is synchronized with the effects of Jupiter's rotation."
Although scientists consider the possible presence of an ocean on Europa as one factor hinting that life could have developed there at some point, it is doubtful that Callisto could harbor life, according to Galileo Project Scientist Dr. Torrence Johnson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, CA.
"The basic ingredients for life - what we call 'pre-biotic chemistry' - are abundant in many solar system objects, such as comets, asteroids and icy moons," Johnson explained. "Biologists believe liquid water and energy are then needed to actually support life, so it's exciting to find another place where we might have liquid water. But, energy is another matter, and currently, Callisto's ocean is only being heated by radioactive elements, whereas Europa has tidal energy as well," from its greater proximity to Jupiter.
Galileo flies by Callisto four more times between May and September of 1999, which may yield more clues about the possibility of a Callisto ocean. However, Kivelson said that scientists will rely heavily on theoretical models to test their interpretations about Callisto.
Kivelson and her team also are reexamining magnetometer data from Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede, to address the tantalizing concept that Callisto and Europa may not be the only moons of Jupiter with subsurface oceans.
The latest Galileo exterior images of Callisto, released on Oct. 13, and a new artist's concept of a cutaway view of the moon's interior are available on the Internet at the following websites:
Galileo has been in orbit around Jupiter, studying the huge planet, its moons and its magnetic environment, for more than 2 ? years. It is currently in the midst of a two-year extension known as the Galileo Europa Mission. Galileo is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. JPL is a division of Caltech, Pasadena, CA.