With the right combination of chemicals, the underground ocean is where life can begin. Unfortunately for planetary scientists, it’s difficult to see past a planet’s exterior to probe the chemistry of its oceans. The smooth European crust is too opaque. “The best we can do is look at the surface because the chemistry changes on the surface,” said Helen Maynard-Casely, a planetary scientist at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. And with the arrival of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scientists’ ability to examine the surface has improved. Two new studies, published in the journal Science, used a technique called near-infrared spectroscopy to assess carbon dioxide concentrations on Europa’s surface and trace its origin. Together, the results suggest that carbon on Europa may come from its ocean, a finding that has implications for future NASA missions and strengthens our understanding of biogenesis. Life of the Moon. Life? In 2019, images of Europa taken by the Hubble Space Telescope showed high concentrations of sodium chloride, a major component of sea salt, in an area known as Tara Regio. Tara Regio is known as the “land of chaos” because it is an area that appears to have had a lot of geological activity in the past.
“These are areas in Europe where we think elements came from the ocean and deposited on the surface,” said Dr. Maynard-Casely, who was not involved in the study. JWST’s near-infrared camera allows scientists to pinpoint carbon dioxide concentrations on Europa’s surface with greater precision than ever before. NIRCam images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope helped identify the carbon dioxide signal. The white area in the photo is from Tara Regio. (CREDIT: Science credit: Geronimo Villanueva (NASA/GSFC), Samantha Trumbo (Cornell Univ.), NASA, ESA, CSA. Image processing credit: Geronimo Villanueva (NASA/GSFC), Alyssa Pagan (STScI )) They discovered that it is also located in Tara Regio. Like the sodium chloride discovery, researchers believe this means carbon dioxide is likely emanating from beneath the icy crust. “We think this implies that carbon may be present,” Samantha Trumbo, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and lead author of one of the two papers, said in a press release from NASA. ultimate origin from the inner ocean”. “This is not trivial. Carbon is a biologically essential element.” Carbon forms the backbone of molecules essential to life as we know it. This is not the first time carbon has been discovered outside Earth. For example, we know that Mars is full of it, just like Venus. In fact, JWST even detected carbon dioxide on a planet outside our solar system. But this discovery of Europa helps strengthen the hypothesis that the Moon’s underground ocean has the necessary ingredients for the emergence of life.
Of course, this doesn’t confirm that aliens are lurking beneath the moon’s crust, but it does add another reason to take a closer look at Europa. The two missions plan to do just that. Getting to the Moon Scientists have long analyzed data from Europa captured by the Galileo probe, which passed by Jupiter’s neighborhood between 1995 and 2003. Over the next decade, they will have a Completely new dataset to evaluate. In October 2024, NASA will launch a spacecraft called Europa Clipper to the Moon. Artist’s rendering of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, scheduled for launch in 2024. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL) Clipper’s mission is to conduct flybys of the moon, with the primary goal of determining whether whether underground oceans can support life. The journey will take about six years, with Clipper arriving in 2030. “The idea of having a mission really dedicated to this – one of the most exciting ocean worlds in our solar system ta – it’s amazing to think about where that would be our understanding. last,” Dr. Maynard-Casely said. This is not the only mission targeting Jupiter’s moons. The JUICE mission, launched by the European Space Agency in April, is expected to to Jupiter in 2031. Its mission is broader. It will include images of Jupiter and Europa, as well as of the largest moon in the solar system, Ganymede, and of Callisto, a moon roughly the size of Mercury.