Jupiter’s Moon Europa Could Potentially Support A Habitable Ocean

Europa. NASA / Jet Propulsion Lab-Caltech / SETI Institute

The icy moon of Jupiter's Europa is one of the most exciting places for researchers to investigate in the Solar System. Underneath its icy crust, there’s a liquid water ocean and geysers erupt from fissures in the frozen surface. The question on scientists' minds is obvious: Could there be life here?

New research suggests the ocean has the right properties to be habitable, although whether life exists there or not is uncertain. Presented at the virtual 2020 Goldschmidt geochemistry conference, scientists looked at the possible origin and composition of the ocean.

Based on data from Hubble and NASA's Galileo, the team believes the heat of the interior of the moon broke up minerals, allowing a vast amount of water to form. The water would have been rich in various substances such as carbon dioxide, calcium, and sulfates, but the team thinks it evolved and became more like our Earthly oceans.

“Indeed it was thought that this ocean could still be rather sulfuric,” lead researcher Mohit Melwani Daswani, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement, “but our simulations, coupled with data from the Hubble Space Telescope, showing chloride on Europa’s surface, suggests that the water most likely became chloride rich. In other words, its composition became more like oceans on Earth. We believe that this ocean could be quite habitable for life.”

The paper models the composition and physical properties of Europa’s core and rocky layers, simulating at what temperatures and depths water and other molecules are liberated from the rocks. 

“Europa is one of our best chances of finding life in our solar system. NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will launch in the next few years, and so our work aims to prepare for the mission, which will investigate Europa’s habitability. Our models lead us to think that the oceans in other moons, such as Europa’s neighbor Ganymede, and Saturn’s moon Titan, may also have formed by similar processes. We still need to understand several points though, such as how fluids migrate through Europa’s rocky interior.”

Europa is slightly smaller than our own moon and was discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Recently, NASA released some incredible high-resolution pictures of its surface.

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