In search of life beyond Earth, Europe, a Jupiter moon has long been on the scientific radar to harbor oceans beneath its ice crust. New research now shows that the underlying rock layer can be hot enough to melt, leading to underwater volcanoes.
Researchers suggest that these underwater volcanoes, if any, could power hydrothermal systems that fuel life at the bottom of Earth’s oceans.
“Volcanic activity may have occurred in the recent past on the ocean floor of Jupiter’s moon Europa and may still be happening,” NASA said in a statement. The new research, published in Geophysical Research Letters, aims to improve the mission objective for the Europa Clipper mission, which is expected to launch for Jupiter’s moon in 2024.
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Astronomers used computer models that show how the moon may have enough internal heat to partially melt this rocky layer, a process that could feed volcanoes on the ocean floor. “The recent 3D modeling of the generation and transfer of this internal heat is the most detailed and thorough investigation to date of the effects of this internal heating on the moon,” said NASA.
Volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon has been a subject of speculation for decades. Scientists had previously determined that Jupiter’s other moon, Io, is volcanic in nature and emits lava fountains, volcanic gas and dust up to 400 kilometers high. Scientists believe the massive ejections are due to Jupiter’s gravitational pull. However, Europe is further away than Io.
The moon has oceans under its icy shell. (Photo: NASA)
In the article led by Marie Bhounková of Charles University in the Czech Republic, the authors also predicted that volcanic activity was most likely to occur near the poles of Europe, where most of the heat is generated. “Our results provide additional evidence that Europe’s subterranean ocean can be an environment conducive to the creation of life,” said Bhounková.
Astronomers have long believed that Europe is one of the rare planetary bodies that could have sustained volcanic activity for billions of years, and possibly the only one beyond Earth that has large reservoirs of water and a long-lived source of energy.
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What is Europa Clipper Mission?
The Europa Clipper Mission will advance the search for one of the greatest questions in cosmic exploration: are we alone? The Europa Clipper mission is preparing the first dedicated and detailed study of an ocean world beyond Earth. The probe will determine whether this distant moon has favorable living conditions. The aim of the expedition is to explore Europe to study its habitability. The spaceship is not sent to find life itself, but tries to answer specific questions about the ocean, ice shell, composition and geology of Europe.
The surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is large in this view, taken from images captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)
Europe was first discovered in 1610 by Gallileo, who also found three other moons, Ganymede, Callisto, and Io, around Jupiter. The world’s first telescopic observation was made in the 1950s, suggesting an abundance of water ice on the surface. Pioneer 10, the first spacecraft to explore the outer planets, took the first images of Jupiter and a single photo of Europe in 1974. Voyager, now in interstellar space, took the first detailed images of the moon in 1979. The icy world was then visited by Voyager-2 in the same year that it flew by and beamed back high-resolution images.
The Gallileo mission conducted an intensive study of the moon during its eight consecutive encounters, which plunged up to 201 km from its surface. Several other probes, including Cassini and Huygens, have driven this study over the years.