May 19, 2024

Is life possible on Jupiter's moon Europa? Researchers make an important discovery

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Researchers believe that life is possible on Jupiter's moon Europa. However, new data shows that one important element is much rarer than expected.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – There are few places in the solar system that capture people's imaginations as much as Jupiter's moon Europa. After all, researchers have long doubted the possibility of extraterrestrial life out there. This is because “Europe” looks like a giant ball of ice. An ocean of liquid salt water is said to exist beneath the ice crust, which is 20 to 30 kilometers thick. This is what measurements from the Voyager and Galileo space probes, as well as model calculations, indicate. A few months ago, researchers also discovered the most important building block of life on Europa: carbon.

Jupiter's moon Europa is considered a suitable candidate for life in the solar system. However, new data shows that less oxygen is produced there than previously assumed. (Archive photo) © IMAGO/Cover Images

NASA scientists: Oxygen production is much lower on Jupiter's moon Europa

Another element that could make life possible is now even rarer on the icy moon than previously thought. Researchers on a NASA mission have found that as much oxygen is not produced on Europa's surface as previous studies indicated. She has it NASA Announced on Monday (March 4). The US Space Agency refers to a study conducted on the same day Nature.com Has been published.

The data comes from NASA's Juno spacecraft. It came within 354 kilometers of Jupiter's moon on September 29, 2022. During Juno's flyby, the probe collected data. This included the amount of oxygen produced on the surface of Jupiter's moon – an indication of whether this was due to…Europe can truly give life.

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Jupiter's moon Europa produces 12 kilograms of oxygen per second, which is less than expected in previous studies

The study's editors believe that about 12 kilograms of oxygen are produced per second in Europe. The number is several times lower than previously thought. In previous studies, estimates have ranged from a few kilograms to more than 1,000 kilograms per second. Jupiter's moon produces 1,000 tons of oxygen per day, enough for about a million people, according to NASA.

Europa is the fourth largest of Jupiter's 95 known moons, and is located in the middle of its radiation belt. The gas giant practically bombards its satellite with charged or ionized particles. These molecules split water molecules into two parts and thus generate oxygen on the surface of the ice. “Europe is like a snowball that is slowly losing water in a flowing stream,” says scientist Jami Salai of Princeton University in New Jersey, comparing the process in which molecules break up water ice on the surface, particle by particle. “In a sense, the entire ice crust is constantly being eroded by waves of charged particles sweeping it away,” Salai said.

Does oxygen escape from the surface of the icy moon Europa into the ocean inside it?

NASA scientists now suspect that some of the resulting oxygen may end up beneath the moon's surface. There oxygen could become a source of metabolic energy in the suspected subterranean salt ocean. According to NASA, researchers are “curious about the possibility of life-supporting conditions below the surface.”

The question of whether or not Jupiter's moon is habitable will continue to concern the space agency in the future. “We're not done yet. More flybys and the first exploration of Jupiter's narrow ring and polar atmosphere are still to come,” said Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

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The Europa Clipper and Joyce space probes also fly to Jupiter and its moons.

NASA will likely send a new probe, Europa Clipper, towards Jupiter in October 2024. The probe will, among other things, examine Europa's oxygen production. The European Space Agency's (ESA) Joyce space probe is already on its way there. Fly to Jupiter and its three moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. It is suspected that there are oceans under the three moons. Here, too, one of the questions that needs to be answered is: Are there, or were there, the appropriate conditions for life there? (Florian Neuroth)