Scientists said that they have figured out how the subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa might have formed and determined that the vast expanse of water might have been able to support microbial life.
Europa, with an ocean hidden beneath a thick shell of ice, has been viewed as a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life.
A new study presented on Wednesday at a geoscience conference underscores its potential.
Europa’s ocean might have formed after minerals ejected their water due to heating caused by the decay of radioactive elements in its interior early in its history, the researchers said.
The effect of tides caused by Europa’s gravitational interactions with Jupiter and two other large Jovian moons, Io and Ganymede, also might have played a role.
“We think Europa’s ocean may have been habitable early when it formed, because our models show that the ocean’s composition may have been only mildly acidic, containing carbon dioxide and some sulfate salts,” said planetary scientist Mohit Melwani Daswani of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the study’s leader. “The availability of liquid water is the first step to habitability. In addition, chemical exchange between the ocean and the rocky interior may have been significant in the past, so potential life may have been able to use chemical energy to survive.”
Daswani said that microbes akin to certain bacteria that use carbon dioxide for energy could have survived using ingredients available in Europa’s early ocean.
Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon. Europa’s ocean, perhaps 65km to 160km deep, might contain double the water of Earth’s oceans.
“A word of caution,” Daswani said. “If a place is habitable, it does not mean that it is actually inhabited, just that the conditions could allow for the survival of some extremely hardy forms of life that we know of on Earth.”
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