According to the most optimistic estimates, the level of oxygen in the oceans of Europa will be the same as in the oceans of the Earth, which gives hope that this oxygen can support life.
A groundbreaking new theory about Jupiter’s moon Europa
An American research team led by Mark Hesse of the University of Texas suggests that oxidizers may be transported through the ice by runoff from saltwater or brines formed during the formation of Europa’s chaotic landscapes. With the outward smoothness of the satellite, observed from a decent distance, up close it is actually covered with a scattering of endless cracks, ridges, and ice hummocks covering a quarter of Europa’s surface.
It is believed that the process of formation of these surface features under the influence of Jupiter’s tidal forces also implies the appearance of large volumes of near-surface brine. Authors of an article published in Geophysical Research Letters show that these brines can drain through the underlying ice and carry oxidizers in processes referred to as “porosity waves”. These pulses can propagate through the ice for 20,000 years.
Oxygen and water on Europa: Can its oceans sustain life?
Europa is considered one of the best places in the solar system to look for alien life, as astronomers have found signs of oxygen and water, as well as chemicals that can serve as nutrients for microorganisms. However, Europa’s ice shell, which is estimated to be 10 to 30 kilometers thick, could prove to be an insurmountable barrier between water and oxygen generated by sunlight and Jupiter’s charged particles hitting the ice surface.
“The most plausible scenario, based on the available data, is that oxygen could be carried by salt water or brine,” explains Hesse.
Scientists believe that in areas where the ice shell of Europa is partially melting, the brine mixes with oxygen from the surface and carries it further into the moon’s interior.
A computer model created by Hesse and colleagues showed how this can happen to brine after the formation of a chaotic landscape: the brine seeps in the form of “duty cycle waves” that cause the ice pores to expand momentarily, allowing the brine to pass through them before they are sealed again.
This type of oxygen transport seems to be a fairly efficient way to deliver oxygen through the ice: 86% of oxygen from the surface as a result of these processes can be delivered to the ocean. However, the data currently available to scientists leave a very wide range of levels of oxygen delivered in this way to the ocean of Europe throughout its history – estimates differ by 10 thousand times.
“According to the most optimistic estimates, the level of oxygen in the oceans of Europa will be the same as in the oceans of the Earth, which gives hope that this oxygen can support life in the subglacial ocean,’ says another co-author of the paper, Steven Vance, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Jupiter’s moon is a primary target for research
The theory was originally proposed by other scientists but has now been tested by creating the world’s first physical-based computer simulation of these processes, in which oxygen makes its way along with salt water under the “chaotic landscapes” of Europa.
“Our study shows that such processes are quite possible,” says Hesse. “So you can say that one of the unsolved problems of the habitability of the subsurface ocean of Europe has now been solved.”
NASA’s Europa Clipper robotic interplanetary probe, whose mission is to find out whether Europa has the conditions necessary to sustain life, is expected to launch from Earth in 2024.
Numerous instruments of this device, including a radar echo sounder developed by scientists at the University of Texas, will help scientists learn more about the presence and availability of the ingredients of life on this satellite of Jupiter.
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• EurekAlert! (n.d.). On Jupiter’s moon Europa, ‘chaos terrains’ could be shuttling oxygen to Ocean.
• Hesse, M. A., Jordan, J. S., Vance, S. D., & Oza, A. V. (n.d.). Downward Oxidant Transport Through Europa’s Ice Shell by Density-Driven Brine Percolation.
• O’Neill, M. (2022, March 25). “chaos terrains” could be shuttling oxygen to ocean on Jupiter’s moon europa. SciTechDaily.
• UT News. (2022, March 24). On Jupiter’s moon Europa, ‘chaos terrains’ could be shuttling oxygen to Ocean.