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Science
THE COSMIC OCEAN
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Water, water everywhere.
Thursdays 18 & 25 March 2004 9.00-9.30pm

Everywhere that modern science looks it is finding secret reservoirs of the most precious liquid known to humankind. From the remotest corners of our galaxy to Earth's nearest neighbor, astronomers are discovering water in quantities never previously imagined. And where there is water, there may be life.

In The Cosmic Ocean, Leo Enright joins scientists from around the world as they probe the furthest reaches of the cosmos in search of the elixir of life and explores the science and the human drama surrounding the search for water.

Europa showing surface of water ice
Jupiter's moon Europa, photographed by the space probe Galileo in June 1997, appears to be covered primarily in water ice. High levels of volcanic activity, caused by Jupiter's strong gravitational influence, suggest that under the icy surface huge liquid oceans may exist, and may harbour forms of life similar to those found around volcanic vents in the earth's oceans. Photo courtesy of NSSDC.

Programme 1: Water - a unique molecule.

Our planet is dominated by water: it covers nearly three quarters of the Earth’s surface, is fundamental to plate tectonics, carves the landscape through erosion and is necessary for all life on Earth – and therefore all life as we know it.

Although it is the archetypical liquid, water is anything but normal. Its chemical structure marks it out as an anomaly. For example, under normal conditions here on Earth, water would be a gas - steam - and would be of no use for bringing together the chemical ingredients of life.

In the first programme of the two part series, Leo asks where this water came from and why it plays such a significant role on our own planet. He also looks further a-field to Europa - one of Jupiter’s Moons - where scientists believe there could be a huge salty ocean beneath an icy crust that may even support life.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 1
Gullies on the surface of Mars
This picture of Mars taken by the Mars Global Surveyor i n April 2002 shows gullies and ravines that appear to have been formed in the past by the release of groundwater held just a few hundred metres under the surface of the planet.
Courtesy of NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.

Programme 2: Water elsewhere.

NASA’s mission statement is to “follow the water”. The recent dramatic results from the small armada of probes on Mars suggest this approach is now paying off.

It appears the planet was bathed in a watery past. But the surface is now dry and barren. Scientists are now using experiments on board both European and American probes to work out where all of the planet’s water has gone.

They also hope to understand whether the existence of water on the planet goes hand in hand with the existence of life on the red planet.

In this second programme, Leo also looks outside the solar system and asks where else water may abound. Scientists have known for a long time that extra-solar planets – those orbiting stars in other solar systems – exist. Could these contain water and how could we tell if the planets are dead or alive?

Listen again Listen again to Programme 2
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