Research led by the University of Texas at Austin used computer modeling to understand how brine (salt water) from the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa may be transporting oxygen to an ice-covered ocean of liquid water. This being confirmed, the place becomes capable of sustaining eventual alien life.
This theory has been proposed by other scientists, but the Austin researchers are the first in the world to do a physics-based computer simulation whereby oxygen piggybacks on the brine beneath the moon’s “chaos terrains” – as they are. called the landscapes composed of cracks, ridges and blocks of ice that cover a quarter of the satellite.
publicityExample of chaotic terrain on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
According to the results, published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters, not only is transport possible, but the amount of oxygen carried into Europa’s ocean could be at the same level as the amount of oxygen in Earth’s oceans today.
“Our research puts this process into the realm of the possible,” said lead author Marc Hesse, a professor in the UT Department of Geological Sciences. “It provides a solution to what is considered to be one of the outstanding problems of the habitability of Europa’s subsurface ocean.”
Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the hottest places for alien life
According to the astronomical scientific community, Europa is one of the top places to look for alien life because they have already detected signs of oxygen and water there, along with chemicals that can serve as nutrients.
However, the moon’s ice sheet – which is estimated to be about 24 kilometers thick – serves as a barrier between water and oxygen, which is generated by sunlight and charged particles from Jupiter hitting the icy surface.
If life as we know it exists in the ocean, it needs a way for oxygen to reach it. According to Hesse, the most plausible scenario based on the available evidence is that the oxygen is transported by the brine.
Scientists say the chaotic terrain forms above regions where Europa’s ice sheet partially melts to form brine, which can mix with surface oxygen. The computer model created by the researchers showed what happens to the brine after the chaotic terrain forms.
According to the model, the brine drains the ground in a distinctive way, taking the form of a “porosity wave” that causes the ice pores to momentarily widen – allowing the brine to pass through before sealing again. Hesse likens the process to the classic cartoon gag of a bulge of water running down a garden hose.
This mode of transport appears to be an effective way to get oxygen across the ice, with 86% of the gas captured at the surface reaching the ocean. However, the available data allow for a wide range of oxygen levels delivered to Europa’s ocean throughout its history – with estimates varying by a factor of 10,000.
According to co-author Steven Vance, research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and supervisor of the Planetary Interiors and Geophysics Group, the higher estimate would make the oxygen levels in Europa’s ocean similar to those in Earth’s oceans. – which raises hopes about the potential of this oxygen to support life in the hidden sea. “It’s tempting to think of some sort of aerobic organism living just below the ice,” he said.
According to Vance, NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, scheduled for 2024, could help improve estimates of oxygen and other ingredients for life on the icy moon.
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