It's thought Jupiter's moon Europa has more water under its icy crust than in all the seas on the surface of our planet. This liquid ocean has the interest of scientists because it is believed that water is key to life, making Europa a contender for the best place to look for life in the Solar System. Now a potential new feature on the moon is adding to this possibility. Models suggest the presence of seafloor volcanos.
In a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers suggest Europa has an interior hot enough to create underwater volcanos. Volcanos may not appear exactly life-friendly when they erupt but they actually do create favorable conditions. On Europa, their possible presence gives the oceans two crucial things: chemicals and energy. On Earth, underwater volcanos and hydrothermal vents are teeming with life, and are where some believe all life on Earth began.
The researchers looked at the gravitational pull of Jupiter and some of its other moons on Europa. These interactions stress the interior layers generating heat. This is what powers volcanism on fellow moon Io, which is closer to Jupiter. The researchers' model suggests that this can also happen on Europa.
“Our findings provide additional evidence that Europa’s subsurface ocean may be an environment suitable for the emergence of life,” lead author Marie Běhounková of Charles University in the Czech Republic, said in a statement. “Europa is one of the rare planetary bodies that might have maintained volcanic activity over billions of years, and possibly the only one beyond Earth that has large water reservoirs and a long-lived source of energy.”
Volcanic activity on Europa, according to the model, is more likely to occur at higher latitudes, and that it's possible this has been happening for billions of years.
A potential way to confirm if the model is correct will come in the early 2030s when NASA’s Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) will begin their explorations of the Jovian system.
“The prospect for a hot, rocky interior and volcanoes on Europa’s seafloor increases the chance that Europa’s ocean could be a habitable environment,” said Europa Clipper project scientist Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We may be able to test this with Europa Clipper’s planned gravity and compositional measurements, which is an exciting prospect.”
Neither Europa Clipper nor JUICE is designed to search for life but their orbital studies will help us work out if life is possible and maybe even if it's likely.