Scientists Find Evidence of Carbon in Europa’s Ocean, Potentially Supporting Life
In groundbreaking research, astronomers have discovered carbon dioxide on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, indicating the presence of carbon in its subsurface ocean. The finding, made using data from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, has important implications for the potential habitability of Europa’s ocean.
Europa has been a subject of great interest for scientists due to its potential for harboring conditions suitable for life. Previous research has shown the presence of a salty ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust. However, the question of whether this ocean contained the necessary chemicals for life, particularly carbon, remained unanswered.
The recently published research indicates that the carbon dioxide detected on Europa’s surface likely originated from its subsurface ocean and was not delivered by external sources like meteorites. Furthermore, the carbon dioxide was deposited relatively recently, implying geological activity within Europa’s ocean.
Carbon is an essential element for life on Earth, and its presence in Europa’s ocean raises hopes for the possibility of life existing there. According to Geronimo Villanueva of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “Understanding the chemistry of Europa’s ocean will help us determine whether it’s hostile to life as we know it, or whether it might be a good place for life.”
The carbon dioxide was found to be most abundant in a region called Tara Regio, which is characterized by disrupted surface ice and resurfaced terrain known as “chaos terrain.” This suggests an exchange of material between the subsurface ocean and the icy surface, indicating a connection between them.
Scientists used data from the integral field unit of Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph to identify the carbon dioxide. This instrument mode provides detailed spectra, allowing astronomers to determine the locations of specific chemicals on Europa’s surface.
While the carbon dioxide is not stable on Europa’s surface, its concentration in a region of young terrain suggests a recent supply. The research team emphasized that their observations took only a few minutes but yielded significant results. Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy said, “This work gives a first hint of all the amazing Solar System science we’ll be able to do with Webb.”
The researchers also searched for evidence of water vapor plumes erupting from Europa’s surface but found no definitive proof. However, they acknowledged the possibility of variable plumes and stressed that their non-detection does not rule out their existence.
These findings have implications for future missions to Europa, such as NASA’s Europa Clipper and ESA’s Juice. The Juice mission, which was launched in April 2023, will conduct detailed observations of Jupiter and its three large ocean-bearing moons, including Europa. The research will help characterize these moons as potential habitats and study Jupiter’s environment.
Co-author Guillaume Cruz-Mermy, formerly of Université Paris-Saclay and current ESA Research Fellow, expressed excitement about the upcoming observations from the Juice mission, stating, “I’m looking forward to seeing what else we can learn about their surface properties from these and future observations.”
The research papers associated with this study will be published in Science on September 21, 2023.