Friday, 8 March 2013

Potentially good news for life on Europa

Image credit:Britney Schmidt/Dead Pixel VFX/Univ. of Texas at Austin

A new study suggests that salt water from the massive ocean beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa makes its way to the surface through cracks in the ice sheet–a discovery that could be good news for the search for extraterrestrial life.
Water reaching the surface of Europa. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
As explains, “Scientists have detected chemicals on Europa’s frozen surface that could only come from the global liquid-water ocean beneath, implying the two are in contact and potentially opening a window into an environment that may be capable of supporting life as we know it.”
According to Popular Science, researchers hypothesize that when salty water from Europa’s sub-surface ocean makes its way to the surface, it is exposed to sulfur from Jupiter’s largest moon Io. The sulfer interacts with magnesium chloride in the water and produces magnesium sulfate, according to the study’s lead author Mike Brown of Caltech in Pasadena.
This discovery shows that chemical activity and energy transfer occur on the surface of Europa, which is important for the search for life there because, as Popular Science explains, “any alien creatures living on the frigid moon would need an energy source–the sun is far too dim at that distance to really do anything.” And with ocean water making its way to Europa’s surface, scientists may be able to collect samples without drilling through the ice sheet.
The team’s study will be published in Astronomical Journal.