Subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa deemed potentially ‘habitable’

FILE PHOTO: Handout photo of a view of Jupiter's moon Europa, created from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990's
FILE PHOTO: Handout photo of a view of Jupiter’s moon Europa, created from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990’s

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Scientists have figured out how the subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa may have formed and determined that this vast expanse of water may have been able to support microbial life in the past.

Europa, with an ocean hidden beneath a thick shell of ice, long has been viewed as a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life in our solar system, alongside other candidates such as Mars and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. A new study presented on Wednesday at a geoscience conference underscores its potential.

Europa’s ocean may have formed after water-rich minerals ejected their water thanks to heating caused by the decay of radioactive elements in its interior early in its history, the researchers found.

The effect of tides caused by Europa’s gravitational interactions with Jupiter – the solar system’s largest planet – and two other large Jovian moons, Io and Ganymede, also may have played a role.

“We think Europa’s ocean may have been habitable early when it formed because our models show that the ocean’s composition may have been only mildly acidic, containing carbon dioxide and some sulfate salts,” said planetary scientist Mohit Melwani Daswani of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the study’s leader.

“The availability of liquid water is the first step to habitability. In addition, chemical exchange between the ocean and the rocky interior may have been significant in the past so potential life may have been able to use chemical energy to survive.”

Daswani said microbes akin to certain Earth bacteria that use carbon dioxide for energy could have survived using ingredients available in Europa’s early ocean.

Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon. Europa’s ocean, perhaps 40 to 100 miles (65 to 160 km) deep, may contain double the water of Earth’s oceans.

The study evaluated whether Europa was previously habitable and did not examine its present habitability, a question the researchers are now exploring.

“A word of caution,” Melwani Daswani said. “If a place is habitable, it does not mean that it is actually inhabited, just that the conditions could allow for the survival of some extremely hardy forms of life that we know of on Earth.”

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

 
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Nasa’s Europa Mission take another step toward reality

 

NASA’s current plan for exploring Europa has just passed its first major review, proving that it’s feasible, unlike any of the previous ideas the agency’s scientists cooked up. America’s space agency has been developing mission ideas for Jupiter’s moon for years and even considered sending a lander to the satellite as recently as a year ago. Its scientists also once thought of sending a spacecraft to orbit Europa, but they ended up having to scrap that plan: the moon is bathed in Jupiter’s radiation, which would quickly kill any vessel that’s constantly exposed to it. So, instead of a lander or a Europa orbiter, NASA will send out a spacecraft in the 2020s designed to orbit Jupiter itself.

As the agency revealed in May, that spacecraft will be equipped with nine imaging, radar, magnenometry and spectometry tools to study the moon’s ice crust and the subsurface ocean that’s likely underneath it. The vehicle will fly by Europa 45 times during its mission period, and it will use every chance it gets to know more about the natural satellite. It’ll even be equipped to gather liquid/gas samples, in case the moon really does erupt plumes of water into space. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been studying the mission formally known as the Clipper concept since 2011, with help from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). Now, that concept is ready to enter development phase, and if all goes well, we’ll finally know if there’s life on Jupiter’s moon.