New Research Suggests that Carbon Dioxide on Europa Comes from a Subsurface Ocean
If we’re ever to find life beyond Earth, Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is a prime candidate. New research, using data from the James Webb Space Telescope, now adds an exciting dimension to this possibility: the carbon dioxide on Europa likely originates from a vast, hidden ocean beneath its icy crust.
Scientists have long suspected that a salty ocean exists kilometers below Europa’s icy facade. This hidden reservoir of water makes Europa an intriguing subject for those hunting for extraterrestrial life within our Solar System.
The real challenge, however, has been determining whether this concealed ocean possesses the right chemical elements for life. While carbon dioxide—a fundamental building block of life—has been detected on Europa’s surface, its origin was uncertain.
Pinpointing the Source of Carbon Dioxide
To solve this mystery, two U.S.-led research teams turned to the Webb telescope’s near-infrared spectrometer. They mapped carbon dioxide levels on Europa’s surface and presented their findings in separate papers in the journal Science. You can read the studies here and here.
The highest concentration of CO2 was found in a region called Tara Regio. This 1,800-kilometer-wide area features chaotic terrain with uneven ridges and fissures. Although the formation of such terrain isn’t completely understood, it’s thought that warm water rising from the ocean could be a factor.
The first study led by Samantha Trumbo, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, explored alternative sources for the carbon, like meteorites. Speaking to AFP, Trumbo confirmed that the carbon was “most likely from the interior ocean.” However, the study couldn’t discount the possibility that the carbon emanated from carbonate minerals in the moon’s interior, transformed into CO2 through irradiation.
More Clues in Tara Regio
Table salt has also been discovered in Tara Regio, tinting the region more yellow than the surrounding white plains. Trumbo commented, “With both salt and CO2 present, we’re gaining insights into what the internal chemistry might be like.”
A second study corroborated these findings, indicating the carbon indeed originates from within Europa. While the researchers had hoped to see water or gas plumes shooting from the surface, none were detected.
The European Space Agency’s Jupiter moon probe, Juice, launched this April. NASA’s Europa Clipper mission is slated for October 2024. Juice’s project scientist, Olivier Witasse, expressed excitement over the new research, stating that Juice will gather “a wealth of new information” when it flies by Europa in 2032.
Both the Juice and Europa Clipper missions aim to find out if these moons possess the conditions necessary for life. But confirming the existence of extraterrestrial beings is not their objective. If life does exist there, it’s likely to be microscopic, surviving under more than 10 kilometers of ice.
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