Study Suggests Jupiter’s Moon May Be Able to Support Life
It is largely believed that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, has a vast ocean sitting underneath its icy exterior. It is also believed that if this ocean has the right mix of chemicals, specifically of hydrogen and oxygen, it could contain and support some kind of life.
In order to produce enough of both chemicals, Europa’s oceans would have to interact with its rocky core. In the new study, NASA scientists measured how much of the chemicals could possibly be produced without the help of volcanic activity and found that the ratio could be very much similar to that of Earth’s – about 10 times more oxygen than hydrogen.
Europa has cooled over time, which allows for more cracks in the rock for the salty water to get into.
“We’re studying an alien ocean using methods developed to understand the movement of energy and nutrients in Earth’s own systems,” NASA’s planetary scientist Steve Vance said in a statement. “The cycling of oxygen and hydrogen in Europa’s ocean will be a major driver for Europa’s ocean chemistry and any life there, just as it is on Earth.”
Of course oxygen and hydrogen aren’t the only chemicals needed to support life. The statement says Vance and the team are also looking into more of life’s building blocks, like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.
It was previously thought that the only way Europa could support life was if it had an abundance of volcanic activity.
“If such activity is not occurring in its rocky interior,” the press release states, “the thinking goes, the large flux of oxidants from the surface would make the ocean too acidic, and toxic, for life.”
However, Vance realized that the cold rock would actually fracture, allowing for a “huge amount of hydrogen to be produced by serpentinization that would balance the oxidants in a ratio comparable to that in Earth’s oceans,” he said.
All this talk of potential life has yet to be confirmed, but NASA will be sending a probe to the moon in order to take a closer look within the next decade or so.
You can view the results of the study here.