Europa, the oceanic world-moon orbiting Jupiter that many astronomers hope harbors extraterrestrial life (primitive), most likely has a similar chemical composition in its oceans to saltwater present in Earth’s oceans.
We’ve been trying to understand what this distant ocean is like, and previous studies have indicated that the water in Europa’s vast oceans are composed of sulfates.
But after scientists decided to take a closer look at the moon using the Hubble Telescope, they argue that the oceans of Europa have sodium chloride salt, just like the salt in our oceans, reports New Scientist.
This matters because it greatly increases the hopes of discovering alien life, but is also a confirmation that the alien moon is hospitable, just as we have been assuming for the past few years.
How they know it’s ‘salty’
Although thick layers of ice cover this vast alien ocean preventing the detailed study of its composition, planetary scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have managed to overcome such an obstacle.
By applying a spectral analysis of visible light, they have discovered that the yellow color visible in some parts of the surface of Europe is actually sodium chloride (NaCl), a compound known on Earth as table salt, which is also the main component of sea salt.
“People have traditionally assumed that all of the interesting spectroscopy is in the infrared on planetary surfaces, because that’s where most of the molecules that scientists are looking for have their fundamental features,” said Mike Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech and coauthor of the Science Advances paper.
“No one has taken visible-wavelength spectra of Europa before that had this sort of spatial and spectral resolution. The Galileo spacecraft didn’t have a visible spectrometer. It just had a near-infrared spectrometer, and in the near-infrared, chlorides are featureless,” said Caltech graduate student Samantha Trumbo, lead author of the paper.
And while experts say the discovery greatly increases the chance that there’s life there now, it doesn0t necessarily mean that’s the case.
That’s because no one has ever actually managed to spot signs of life.
It is just that Europa seems to have the best conditions for life as we know it, of all the places in the solar system that we know of.
“We’ve never actually measured an ocean with primarily sulfates for salts,” project leader Samantha Trumbo revealed to New Scientist.
“If it’s sodium chloride instead, that means it’s more like Earth. If you licked it, it would probably taste familiar and salty.”