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400 years ago astronomer Galileo took the first human look Jupiter and its four moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto - 02 April 10
The Red Spot of Jupiter and its four satellites
Jupiter's red spot eyes the planets orbiting four moons


Humans have looked to the heavens since time began - to explore, meditate, and in the never-ending quest for answers to why there is life, the universe and, well, everything.

The Italian astronomer Galileo built a telescope and observed the largest planet in the solar system as England unified with Scotland, Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament, and Shakespeare died.

Galileo also looked upon four satellites orbiting the mighty ball of gases and named them after the lovers of Jupiter (otherwise known as the Greek god Zeus): Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

A few centuries later and humankind finally developed the technology to get more up-close and personal with the fifth planet from the sun. Most notably, the great swirling red spot was identified as huge, raging storm.

But the moons could prove to be of more interest in our search for alien life. Europa, orbiting second-nearest to Jupiter, is encased in a smooth sheet of ice pock-marked with giant shifting icebergs and strange red streaks.

Scientists have shown that beneath the ice there is water, a vast ocean that could be up to 200km deep (Earth deepest ocean trench reaches a paltry 2km). They believe that both the ice and water could and does support life, probably primitive bacterial cells, but life nonetheless.

The possibility that natural ecosystems have developed in the most harsh and inhospitable corners of space is truly amazing. Humans might comprise the most complex and organised life but the potential of simpler life-forms should not be dismissed - they could bring unimaginable benefits to Earth and its population of people, animals and plants.

Gathering the evidence of life "out there", however, will be harder than applying the universal laws of physics and biology to our inter-planetary neighbours. At a time when NASA's shuttle era comes to a close and manned missions to the moon have been cut, it seems that we are no nearer to exploring our own backyard of a universe than Galileo was 400 years' ago.