Jupiter’s moon Europa has an icy crust covering a vast, global ocean, NASA reported on Tuesday (25 May).
The rocky layer underneath may be hot enough to melt, leading to undersea volcanoes.
New research and computer modelling show that volcanic activity may have occurred on the seafloor of Jupiter’s moon Europa in the recent past – and may still be happening.
NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission, targeting a 2024 launch, will swoop close to the icy moon and collect measurements that may shed light on the recent findings.
Scientists have strong evidence that Europa harbours an enormous ocean between its icy crust and rocky interior.
The new work shows how the moon may have enough internal heat to partially melt this rocky layer, a process that could feed volcanoes on the ocean floor.
The recent 3D modelling of how this internal heat is produced and transferred is the most detailed and thorough examination yet of the effect this interior heating has on the moon.
The key to Europa’s rocky mantle being hot enough to melt lies with the massive gravitational pull Jupiter has on its moons.
As Europa revolves around the gas giant, the icy moon’s interior flexes. The flexing forces energy into the moon’s interior, which then seeps out as heat (think of how repeatedly bending a paperclip generates heat).
The more the moon’s interior flexes, the more heat is generated.
The research, published recently in Geophysical Research Letters, models in detail how Europa’s rocky part may flex and heat under the pull of Jupiter’s gravity.
It shows where heat dissipates and how it melts that rocky mantle, increasing the likelihood of volcanoes on the seafloor.