- Jupiter’s moon Europa may have the conditions necessary to support life, a new study claims.
- The interior of the planet is believed to be liquid water, and if that water has a stable source of heat, life could exist or even thrive there.
- Future missions to explore Europa could reveal whether or not life has ever taken root there.
Of all the worlds in our solar system, Jupiter’s frosty moon Europa is on the very short list of places where we might find life. Europa’s surface is a frosty crust that covers a subsurface ocean. There’s enough heat deep down within the moon that liquid water exists, and that means there might be life there.
Now, a new round of research from a team led by Mohit Melwani Daswani of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggests that not only is there an ocean of water hiding inside Europa, but that the interior of the moon may be split into distinct layers, with the surface ice acting as a shell.
Researchers have suspected for some time that Europa had or still has an ocean beneath its surface. Large cracks in the surface ice appear to indicate that things are still churning deep inside the moon. Daswani and his team provide some additional context for this theory, noting that a process called differentiation may be responsible for distinct layers of liquid water and higher temperatures once you crack the thick surface ice.
“The interior of Europa is much denser than the outer layers,” Daswani told Space.com in an interview. “That already tells us a really important property of Europa’s history and geology: It must have experienced high heat in order for that process of differentiation to occur.” That past high heat also increases the odds that Europa currently has enough heat to hide a liquid ocean.
Gradual cooling of the moon over time and the liquid water ocean that still exists inside could be due to a variety of factors. The gravitational pull of Jupiter and the wealth of moons surrounding the planet may provide enough energy to the water inside to ensure it remains a liquid. Another theory, that the decay of radioactive elements deep inside the moon is providing enough heat to maintain a stable body of water around it, is another possibility.
The conditions necessary for life as we know it are liquid water and some form of energy. For us living on the surface of the Earth, that energy comes from the Sun, and it was long assumed that sunlight was necessary for life. However, organisms that exist deep in Earth’s oceans get all the heat and energy they need from hydrothermal vents, and in the complete absence of light.
It’s possible that something similar is happening deep beneath the ice of Europa, though we won’t know for sure until we visit.