NASA Study Jupiter Moon Europa Surface For Conditions Suitable For Life

·3-min read

This colour view of Jupiter's moon Europa was captured by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Scientists are studying processes that affect the surface as they prepare to explore the icy body.

Europa and its global ocean may currently have conditions suitable for life, according to NASA, and scientists are now studying processes on the icy surface as they prepare to explore it.

They are studying the cumulative effects of small impacts on Europa's surface as they prepare to explore the distant moon with the Europa Clipper mission and study the possibilities for a future lander mission.

Europa is of particular scientific interest because its salty ocean, which lies beneath a thick layer of ice, may currently have conditions suitable for existing life. That water may even make its way into the icy crust and onto the moon's surface.

NASA explain: "It's easy to see the impact of space debris on our Moon, where the ancient, battered surface is covered with craters and scars. Jupiter's icy moon Europa withstands a similar trouncing - along with a punch of super-intense radiation.

"As the uppermost surface of the icy moon churns, material brought to the surface is zapped by high-energy electron radiation accelerated by Jupiter."

New research and modelling estimate how far down that surface is disturbed by the process called "impact gardening".

The work, published 12 July in Nature Astronomy, estimates that the surface of Europa has been churned by small impacts to an average depth of about 12 inches (30 centimetres) over tens of millions of years.

Any molecules that might qualify as potential biosignatures, which include chemical signs of life, could be affected at that depth.

That's because the impacts would churn some material to the surface, where radiation would likely break the bonds of any potential large, delicate molecules generated by biology. Meanwhile, some material on the surface would be pushed downward, where it could mix with the subsurface.

While impact gardening has long been understood to be likely taking place on Europa and other airless bodies in the solar system, the new modelling provides the most comprehensive picture yet of the process.

In fact, it is the first to take into account secondary impacts caused by debris raining back down onto Europa's surface after being kicked up by an initial impact.

"This work broadens our understanding of the fundamental processes on surfaces across the solar system," said Cynthia Phillips, a Europa scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and a co-author of the study.

"If we want to understand the physical characteristics and how planets in general evolve, we need to understand the role impact gardening has in reshaping them."

The Europa Clipper spacecraft, which is scheduled for a 2024 launch, will conduct a series of close flybys of Europa as it orbits Jupiter.

It will carry instruments to thoroughly survey the moon, as well as sample the dust and gases that are kicked up above the surface.

Missions such as Europa Clipper contribute to the field of astrobiology, the interdisciplinary research on the variables and conditions of distant worlds that could harbour life as we know it.

While Europa Clipper is not a life-detection mission, it will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Europa and investigate whether the icy moon, with its subsurface ocean, has the capability to support life.

Understanding Europa's habitability will help scientists better understand how life developed on Earth and the potential for finding life beyond our planet.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting