Jupiter’s Moon Europa is among a few celestial bodies being probed intensely to know whether it hosts or could host life. Europa, which is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon, has been hiding an ocean beneath its frozen surface. Evidence indicates it could be warm, salty, and rich in life-enabling chemistry. While it is known Europa generates oxygen when sunlight and charged particles from Jupiter strike the moon’s surface, for life to find a home in the subsurface ocean, oxygen has to reach there. But there’s a problem. The thick icy sheet on the surface prevents oxygen from reaching the ocean below it.
New research, however, says that this could be happening but in a very different way. The researchers say the moon could be pulling down oxygen below its icy surface to feed simple life. They say pools of saltwater in Europa’s icy shell could be transporting oxygen from the surface to the ocean. The study, led by University of Texas professor Marc Hesse, also suggests that the amount of oxygen in Europa’s oceans could be on par with the quantity of oxygen in Earth’s oceans today.
The researchers put their theory to test during a computer simulation showing oxygen hitching a ride on saltwater under Europa’s “chaos terrains,” landscapes made up of cracks, ridges and ice blocks. “Our research puts this process into the realm of the possible,” Hesse said.
The research – titled Downward Oxidant Transport Through Europa’s Ice Shell by Density-Driven Brine Percolation — was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
If proved, the study could show how life finds its way in the most unsuspecting way. But that would require a closer look at Europa as scientists think the ice sheet is about 15-25 kilometres thick. NASA has been preparing to send an orbiter to Jupiter. The Europa Clipper is set to launch in 2024 and will conduct multiple close flybys of the moon, during which scientists hope to gather data on its atmosphere, surface, and interior.