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Water conditions in Jupiter's clouds could support 'life', say astroboffins

Gas giant's atmosphere has right concentration of water and temp, though other factors still unknown

Astroboffins from Queen's University Belfast reckon the clouds that swirl around Jupiter might contain enough water to support "Earth-like" life.

That's just one of the conclusions of a study published in Nature Astronomy which looked at the concentrations of water in planetary clouds.

The paper noted that much research was focused only the quantity of water, and emphasised that the relative availability of water molecules – known as "water activity" - was also key in determining whether a place is habitable by life as we know it.

The research project – led by Dr John Hallsworth from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen's University Belfast – devised a method to determine the water activity of planetary atmospheres.

They then used this approach to study the sulphuric acid clouds that envelop Venus. The results revealed that the water activity was more than a hundred times below the lower limit at which life can exist on Earth, dashing some hopes that Earth-like life may exist there - though obviously not ruling out other organisms.

However, when they applied the same techniques to Jupiter's clouds, they found that these "have a high enough concentration of water, as well as the correct temperature, for life to exist there."

Said Dr Hallsworth: "Our research shows that the sulphuric acid clouds in Venus have too little water for active life to exist, based on what we know of life on Earth.

"We have also found 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. One of these will take measurements of Venus's atmosphere that we will be able to compare with our findings."

Dr Philip Ball, a co-author of the report, said that in the past, the search for extra-terrestrial life has "sometimes been a bit simplistic in its attitude to water."

"As our work shows, it's not enough to say that liquid water equates with habitability," he added. "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."

Earlier this year, those in search of alien life were advised to broaden their search criteria to include things such as air pollution or energy production. ®

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