Life in the solar system: Europa’s subglacial ocean

(ORDO NEWS) — To numerous attempts to detect life beyond the Earth, the cosmos responds with silence. But even if intelligent beings live somewhere in the vastness of the Universe, our meeting is unlikely to take place.

Space is an unfriendly environment for humans, and we do not have technologies capable of making space travel a reality. The only way we can explore the solar system is by sending robots to neighboring planets and their moons.

So, one of Jupiter’s satellites, Europa, has long been of interest to scientists. Astronomers believe that under the ice cap of this moon is an ocean of liquid water in which life can exist. Recently, a team at Stanford University developed a computer simulation that led scientists to learn something interesting.

What is hidden in the solar system

The formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago made life possible on our planet. Taking third place among other worlds, the Earth received the heat and energy necessary to maintain liquid water on its surface. The two neighboring planets, Venus and Mercury, do not have this luxury.

But the solar system is full of surprises – rocky planets (the first four celestial bodies) are adjacent to majestic gas giants, around which a decent number of satellites revolve. But can life exist on one of them? Of course, we are unlikely to find the under-ice civilization of Europe, but organisms previously unknown to science, even tiny ones, are easy.

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The solar system was formed by gravitational compression of a gas and dust cloud about 4.57 billion years ago

The reason for the increased attention of scientists to Europe is clear: surface features, like the Greenland ice sheet, suggest the presence of underground liquid water, which may contain organic matter. Subglacial saltwater lakes may be common on this moon, researchers say.

Evidence of shallow lakes near the frozen surface of Europa came when scientists noticed that giant parallel ridges that stretched for hundreds of kilometers on this moon were strikingly similar to those found on the Greenland ice sheet.

If the vast ice ridges that cross Europe formed in the same way as in Greenland, then subglacial lakes could help circulate the chemicals needed for life, from the icy shell to the salty ocean that lurks deep below.

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Europa is the sixth moon of Jupiter, the smallest of the four Galilean moons

Ice, lakes and Greenland

Liquid water near the surface of Europa’s ice sheet is indeed a provocative and promising place, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications. According to Dustin Schroeder, professor of geophysics at Stanford University, the idea of ​​finding a signature that points to an analogue of subglacial lakes is amazing.

Interesting fact

The ocean on Europa does not freeze thanks to the influence of tidal forces from Jupiter, which give rise to water geysers.

Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon, and interest in it began when observations from ground-based telescopes and passing space probes found signs of an ocean hidden under the icy surface. What’s more, the ocean of Jupiter’s moon may contain twice as much water as all of Earth’s oceans.

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Jupiter boasts of its “collection” of moons (there are 79 of them)

But the main mystery for scientists was the discovery of double ridges that cover the surface of the moon like scars.

The mountain ranges can be up to 300 meters high and are separated by wide valleys. By carefully studying the images obtained, the researchers found similarities between them and those located in the northwest of Greenland.

The Greenland ice sheet has a small double ridge that looks almost exactly like those seen on the surface of Europa.

For about 20 years we have been trying to find out exactly how they formed, – told reporters Riley Kahlberg, a geophysicist from Stanford University.

Greenland’s ice ridges are about 50 times smaller than those on Jupiter’s moon. In Greenland, water drains into underground lakes from lakes on the surface, but on Europa, researchers suspect water is forced to the surface from the ocean below through cracks in the moon’s ice shell.

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The surface of Jupiter’s moon is made of ice and is one of the smoothest in the solar system

The ice on Europa’s surface serves as a barrier between water and oxygen, which is generated by sunlight and charged particles from Jupiter hitting the icy surface. So if life in the forms known to us exists under the ice of Europa, oxygen must reach it.

Oxygen and salt water

The researchers believe that the most likely scenario is that oxygen is carried by salt and melt water. Where the ice cap of a gas giant moon is partially melting, meltwater can mix with oxygen from the surface. A computer model created by the researchers showed what happens to melt water after the formation of a chaotic landscape.

This process appears to be an efficient way to deliver oxygen through ice. At the same time, 86% of the oxygen absorbed at the surface is transferred to the ocean itself. This movement of water can help circulate the chemicals needed for life.

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View from the surface of Europe, beauty

And if the levels of oxygen in the oceans of Europa are similar to the levels in the oceans of the Earth, this is encouraging. Perhaps we are not so alone in the solar system: living beings can live in the subglacial oceans of Jupiter’s moon. This is evidenced by useful compounds on the surface of the moon, which can reach the subglacial ocean.

Moreover, the results obtained in the course of the work showed that such oxygen transportation is possible, and the amount of oxygen entering the satellite’s subglacial ocean may coincide with that in the oceans on Earth. You can read more about why Jupiter’s moon glows in the dark here.

Mission to Europe

As we said earlier, the NASA Europa Clipper mission is scheduled for 2024. The researchers expect that its launch will shed light on the formation of double ridges, and the device itself will conduct detailed reconnaissance of the satellite and find out if it has conditions suitable for life.

The new study seems to make the task much easier, as liquid water could exist in lakes much closer to Europa’s surface.

Since there is no apparatus observing Europe today, the answers have to be sought on Earth. The University of Texas team has been studying Jupiter’s moon by observing regular satellite flights over Greenland. Greenland has received such increased attention thanks to the study of the effects of climate change.

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NASA Europa Clipper is equipped with the latest technology

So the news is really good – if everything happens in Europe as it does on Earth, then we will soon find out about it. In addition, Europa Clipper will study the icy moon up close using radar, and the main goal of the space mission is to search for water.

Once the probe is close to Europa, the next step – though NASA doesn’t have a firm date yet – is to land the spacecraft on the moon’s surface.

Among the tasks of Europa Clipper, the study of surface ice and its subsequent drilling are also indicated. If everything goes well, then earthlings will finally know the chemical composition of the subglacial ocean of Europa, at the same time receiving a long-awaited answer to the question of whether there is life outside the Earth.


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