In September 2016, NASA scientists revealed water vapor plumes may be being emitted from the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. This crucial discovery gave NASA the green light to do further investigating. What could this mean for Jupiter? What could it mean for both the present and the future of our solar system?
Jupiter’s Moon, Europa
Europa was discovered January 8, 1610 by astronomer Galileo and was named after Europa, the legendary lover of the Greek God Zeus. Europa is one of 53 moons orbiting Jupiter. It is the sixth-closest to the planet, and also the sixth-largest moon in the Solar System. This moon is nearly the same size as Earth’s Moon, and is tidally locked to Jupiter in its nearly circular orbit.
Europa has a water ocean underneath its cracked surface, covering a small rocky core. There have also been seen traces of clay-rich minerals. Planetary scientists think that this ocean is mainly salty water, which may be implicated in this moon’s magnetic field. Europa has a very smooth surface, which indicates that water from beneath somehow escapes and freezes smooth. There are bright and dark markings, and a few craters, the largest of which is named Pwyll. Other features are called linae, jumbled lenticulae, and “freckles”. Some may be formed when meltwater released by interior warming.
What We Know So Far
Europa’s hydrogen is generated as seawater reacts with rock in the moon’s crust. Europa has cooled slowly over the eons, forming new cracks in the crust that expose more rock to seawater, thus generating more hydrogen, according to researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Until now, many planetary scientists thought that Europa, kneaded by Jupiter’s gravity, would be volcanically active. After all, the neighboring moon, Lo, is the most volcanically active body in the solar system; Jupiter’s gravity and tidal forces deform Lo’s crust and mantle, generating huge amounts of heat. Something similar could be happening at Europa, but nobody knows for sure if it is. Much speculation about possible Europan life envisions a biosphere that resembles the clusters of life found near hydrothermal vents on Earth’s ocean floor. But the “new research suggests that volcanism isn’t necessary to cycle chemicals through the ocean, and thus is probably not necessary for living things to survive,” says a researcher from NASA.
A salty ocean of liquid water is believed to lie beneath Europa’s icy exterior. Scientists think this ocean could be habitable, if it harbors the required chemical building blocks and the right proportion of elements to provide energy for biological systems. The reason Europa is such a phenomenon is pretty simple. Europa’s position from Jupiter and it’s ability to stay dark both play roles in helping this moon create a layer of ice over the water, as well as keep the water beneath from freezing completely. With the data we have gathered already, scientists have begun looking into the possibility of Europa hosting life on its surface.
In short, scientists hope to learn if Europa can host life in its current state, or at least find out what it would take to get this extraordinary moon to that level. Every 10 years, the U.S. National Research Council issues a Planetary Science Decadal Review. The 2011 report ranked the exploration of Europa as one of the highest-priority missions, but so far lack of funding and budget cuts have kept any mission from happening. NASA’s 2015 budget request includes funding to help plan a potential Europa mission. The same week as the Planetary Society’s conference, the agency asked researchers to propose scientific instruments for a mission to the icy moon. Europa, along with all of Jupiter’s moons, is still very mysterious. Hopefully these request result in more funding and we will soon know what potential Europa truly has.