According to a new NASA study, the frozen ocean on Jupiter’s Galilean moon Europa has the necessary balance of energy to harbor life. Namely, the paper suggests that the ocean has a similar balance of oxygen and hydrogen to that found on Earth.
The study was developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal. According to the findings, both the Earth and Europa produce approximately ten times more oxygen than hydrogen.
On Europa, hydrogen could be created through a process called serpentinization, by which water interacts with the rock. Several minerals are also release in the process. Gradually, the interior of Europa cools down, causing the ocean floor to crack, opening up more rock surface, which in contact with water releases oxygen. Cracks in Europa’s ocean floor are much deeper than those on Earth, measuring up to 15 miles, which means the oxygen production is occurring inside the ocean floor.
Lead author of the study, Steve Vance, explained that cold rock breaks down easier, causing the release of quantities of hydrogen through serpentinization. The rate at which the oxygen is released would be comparable to that on Earth’s oceans.
The scientists are also studying the cycles of other substances, such as nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and sulfur. However, the cycling of oxygen and hydrogen is crucial in understanding life-supporting activities, as is the case on Earth.
It has long been thought that volcanic activity was necessary to make Europa’s ocean habitable. Without it, the oxidants created when radiation sent by Jupiter breaks up water molecules, that can be found on the moon’s surface would make the ocean too toxic to sustain life. Scientists do not agree on whether Europa has any ongoing volcanic activity.
Currently NASA is preparing a mission that would explore Europa with the purpose of identifying more accurately its capability to support life. The mission is expected to take place sometime in the mid-2020s. The mission will bring back information on the moon’s atmosphere and the composition of its surface and ice cover, as well as more accurate information on its ocean and interior and photograph everything in high-resolution.
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