Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the few planets in our solar system that could harbor conditions suitable for life. Previous research has shown that beneath its icy water crust lies a salty ocean of liquid water with a rocky sea floor. However, planetary scientists have not confirmed whether or not this ocean contains the chemicals necessary for life, especially carbon.
Astronomers using data from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope have identified carbon dioxide in a specific region on the icy surface of Europa. The analysis indicates that this carbon likely originated in the subsurface ocean and was not delivered by meteorites or other external sources. Moreover, they were deposited on a recent geological time scale. This discovery has important implications for the possibility of habitation in the vicinity of Europe.
“On Earth, life loves chemical diversity, and the more diversity the better. We are carbon-dependent life. Understanding the chemistry of Europa’s ocean will help us “We need to determine whether it is hostile to life as we know it, or whether it is a good place to live,” from two independent papers describing the findings.
“We now believe we have observational evidence that the carbon we see on Europa’s surface came from the ocean. This is not trivial. Carbon is a biologically essential element,” added Samantha Trumbo of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, lead author of the second paper analyzing this data.
Ocean surface connection
Webb found that carbon dioxide is most abundant on Europa’s surface in an area called Tara Reggio, a geologically young region with generally resurfaced terrain, known as the “Chaos Terrane.” The surface ice has been disrupted, and there is likely an exchange of material between the subsurface ocean and the icy surface.
“Previous observations from the Hubble Space Telescope show evidence of the presence of ocean-derived salt at Tara Reggio,” Trumbo explained. “Now we see that carbon dioxide is highly concentrated there as well. We think this means that the origin of the carbon is probably in the inland ocean.”
“Scientists are debating how connected Europa’s ocean is to its surface. “I think this question was a big impetus for Europa’s exploration,” Villanueva said. “This suggests we may be able to learn some fundamental things about the ocean’s composition even before we drill through the ice to get the full picture. “
Both teams identified carbon dioxide using data from the Webb Near-Infrared Spectrometer Integrated Field Unit (NIRSpec). This instrument mode provides spectra with a resolution of 320 x 320 km over a 3,128 km diameter field of view on Europa’s surface, allowing astronomers to determine where certain chemicals are present.
Carbon dioxide is unstable on the surface of Europe. Therefore, scientists say it was likely supplied on a recent geological time scale – a conclusion strengthened by its concentration in an area with recent topography.
“These observations took only a few minutes of observatory time,” said Heidi Hamill of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, an interdisciplinary scientist who leads Webb’s observations of the solar system’s first guaranteed cycle. “Even in this short period of time, we’ve been able to do really big science. This work gives a first glimpse at all the amazing solar system science we’ll be able to do with Webb.
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Villanueva’s team also looked for evidence of a plume of water vapor erupting from Europa’s surface. Researchers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency reported initial plume discoveries in 2013, 2016 and 2017. However, finding conclusive evidence has been difficult.
Webb’s new data shows no evidence of plume activity, which allowed Villanueva’s team to set a strict upper limit on the rate at which material could potentially be ejected. However, the team emphasized that their failure to detect does not rule out the presence of a plume.
“There is always the possibility that these plumes are variable and that you can only see them at certain times. All we can say with 100% confidence is that we did not detect a plume in Europe when we made these observations with Webb,” Hamill said.
These findings may help inform NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, as well as ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, which launched on April 14, 2023. Gus will make detailed observations of the gas giant. planet and its three large ocean-bearing moons—Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa—with a suite of remote sensing, geophysical, and in situ instruments. The mission will characterize these moons as planetary bodies and potential habitats, explore Jupiter’s complex environment in depth, and study the broader Jupiter system as an archetype for gas giants across the universe.
“This is a great first result of what Webb will bring to the study of Jupiter’s moons,” said co-author Guillaume Cruz-Merme, formerly of the Université Paris-Saclay and currently an ESA Research Fellow at the agency’s European Space Astronomy Centre. “I look forward to seeing what else we can learn about their surface properties from these and future observations.”
“The results reinforce the importance of the juice mission,” Guillaume continues. “Using its MAJIS instrument, it will enable JOSE to observe the same surface over the same wavelength range but with a much greater spatial resolution and over a longer period of time, and will thus further constrain the habitability situation in Europe.”
The two papers related to this research will be published in the journal Science on September 21, 2023.
Webb is the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Under an international cooperation agreement, ESA provided the telescope launch service using the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Working with partners, ESA was responsible for the development and qualification of Ariane 5 modifications for the Webb mission and the purchase of the launch service by Arianespace. ESA also provided the NIRSpec spectrometer and 50% of the mid-infrared instrument MIRI, which were designed and built by a group of nationally funded European institutes (the European MIRI Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.
WEB is an international partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
ESA Media Relations
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