In a fascinating breakthrough, astronomers have concluded that carbon, an essential component of life on Earth, is also present within Europa, Jupiter’s ice-covered moon that is believed to contain immense oceans of salt water liquid under its icy surface.
The results come from analysis of images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which found that the carbon “likely came from the subsurface ocean,” according to a summary of two papers on the analysis.
“The discovery signals a potentially habitable environment in the Europa Ocean,” according to the Webb Telescope website.
Signs that a building block of life is found in Europa’s ocean
Scientists had previously detected solid carbon dioxide on the surface of Europa, but they were unsure whether it came from extra-lunar sources, such as meteorites. The new research points to an answer – and to other questions.
“On Earth, life likes chemical diversity: the more diversity, the better. Our life is based on carbon. Understanding the chemistry of Europa’s ocean will help us determine if it is hostile to life as we know it, or whether it might be a good place to live,” said Geronimo Villanueva, lead author of one of the two papers on the research, when publishing the results. Villanueva is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
On the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa, Webb discovered carbon dioxide that likely came from the ocean of liquid water below. Understanding the chemistry of this ocean could help determine whether it is a good place for life as we know it: https://t.co/tGLrJrVsyl pic.twitter.com/4C4JjZMCBw
– NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) September 21, 2023
“We now think we have observational evidence that the carbon we see on the surface of Europa comes from the ocean. This is not a trivial thing. Carbon is a biologically essential element,” said Samantha Trumbo of the Cornell University, lead author of the study. second article on carbon on Europe.
Much of the carbon dioxide was found in an area called Tara Regio, where sodium chloride – or table salt – was spotted several years ago. Its name comes from Celtic mythology, meaning “the principal royal residence of the High Kings”. But planetary scientists know the region as a “chaos terrain,” where the landscape appears to be broken, perhaps because of interactions between the icy surface and the ocean below.
No, it’s not time to meet the new neighbors
It is important to remember that in this context, a “habitable environment” on Europa refers to a salty ocean surrounded by a shell of ice estimated to be 10 to 15 miles thick, on a moon where sunlight The sun is about 25 times fainter than on Earth. .
If that’s not enough to make you put away your swimsuit, consider the neighborhood bully: Europa is under the influence of Jupiter’s radiation and gravity – the latter is so strong it’s believed to create tides which tear the thick crust of ice of the moon.
But NASA says tidal bending over Europa could also produce the heat and nutrients that support life. So while the differences between conditions on Earth are striking, the similarities, such as the likely presence of carbon, are compelling. And although Europa is a little smaller than our Moon, its ocean is estimated to contain more than twice as much water as all of Earth’s oceans combined.
The new findings come a year ahead of NASA’s ambitious Europa Clipper mission, which will launch in October 2024 and reach the Jovian moon in 2030.
Europa Clipper is expected to be the largest spacecraft ever developed by NASA for such a mission, mainly because it needs large solar panels to operate so far from the sun. The craft will make nearly 50 flights over Europe, just 16 miles from the surface.