Life on Jupiter’s moons? NASA’s Web finds source of carbon on Europa’s surface

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Europa has detected carbon dioxide on Jupiter’s moon, suggesting it may have conditions suitable for life. The discovery points to exchanges between the moon’s icy surface and its subsurface ocean, emphasizing Europa’s potential for future space missions. This illustration depicts a plume of water vapor that could be ejected from the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

Carbon suggests a favorable environment for life in the subsurface ocean

For as long as humans have gazed into the night sky, we’ve wondered about extraterrestrial life. Scientists now know that many places in our solar system may have suitable conditions for life. One of these ThursdayThe moon Europa, a fascinating world, has a salty, subsurface ocean of liquid water—perhaps twice as much as all of Earth’s oceans combined. However, scientists are not sure whether Europa’s oceans contain biologically essential chemicals, particularly carbon, a universal building block for life as we know it. Now, use it The James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers have detected carbon on Europa’s surface that may have originated in this ocean. The discovery suggests a habitable environment in Europa’s oceans.

Europa (Web NIRCam Image)

The NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured an image of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Webb identified carbon dioxide in Europa’s icy surface that may have originated in the moon’s surface ocean. This finding has important implications for the potential habitat of Europa’s oceans. The Moon appears mostly blue because it is brighter in the lower infrared wavelengths. The white features correspond to the chaotic landscape of Powys Regio (left) and Tara Regio (centre and right), showing enhanced carbon dioxide snow at the surface.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Geronimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Samantha Kay Trumbo (Cornell University), Geronimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Alyssa Bacon (STScI)

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope has detected a source of carbon on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa

Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the few worlds in our solar system that could create conditions suitable for life. Previous research has shown that beneath its water-ice crust lies a salty ocean of liquid water with a rocky seafloor. However, planetary scientists are not sure whether the ocean contains the chemicals necessary for life, especially carbon.

Astronomers use the data NASAThe James Webb Space Telescope has identified carbon dioxide in a specific region on Europa’s icy surface. The analysis indicates that this carbon likely originated in the surface ocean and was not provided by meteorites or other external sources. Also, it was deposited at a geologically recent time scale. This finding has important implications for the potential habitat of Europa’s oceans.

“On Earth, biochemistry likes diversity — the more diversity, the better. We’re carbon-based life. Understanding the chemistry of Europa’s ocean will help us determine whether it’s hostile to life as we know it, or whether it’s a good place for life,” said Jeronimo Villanueva of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. said. Two independent papers describing the findings.

“We now think we have observational evidence that the carbon we see on Europa’s surface came from the ocean. That’s not trivial. Carbon is a biologically essential element,” said Samantha Trumbo of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, lead author of the second paper analyzing the data.

NASA plans to launch its Europa Clipper spacecraft in October 2024 to further investigate whether Europa has conditions suitable for life.

Europa Carbon Dioxide Distribution

This graphic shows a map of Europa’s surface from the NIRCam (near-infrared camera) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in the first panel, and composite maps derived from Webb’s NIRSpec/IFU (Near-Infrared Spectral Integrated Field Unit) data in the following three panels. In composition maps, white pixels correspond to carbon dioxide in a large area of ​​disturbed chaotic landscape called Tara Regio (center and right), with additional concentrations within areas of chaotic region Povis Regio (left). The second and third panels show evidence of crystalline carbon dioxide, while the fourth panel represents a complex and amorphous form of carbon dioxide.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Geronimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Samantha Kay Trumbo (Cornell University), Geronimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Alyssa Bacon (STScI)

A surface-sea connection

On Europa’s surface, Webb found that carbon dioxide is most abundant in a region called the Tara Regio—a young region of generally restructured land known geologically as the “turbulent terrane.” The surface ice is disturbed, and there may have been exchange of material between the surface ocean and the ice surface.

“Preliminary Observations Hubble Space Telescope Show evidence of sea-derived salt in Tara Reggio,” explained Trumbo. “Now we see a large concentration of carbon dioxide there as well. We think this indicates that the carbon may have its final origin in the inner ocean.”

“Scientists have been debating how much of Europa’s ocean connects to its surface. I think that question was a big motivation for the Europa study,” Villanueva said. “This suggests that we can learn some basic things about the ocean’s composition before drilling into the ice to get the full picture.”

Both teams identified the carbon dioxide using data from Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) Integrated Field Unit. This instrument mode provides spectra with a resolution of 200 x 200 miles (320 x 320 kilometers) over the surface of Europa, which is 1,944 miles in diameter, allowing astronomers to pinpoint where specific chemicals are present.

Carbon dioxide is not stable on Europa’s surface. Therefore, scientists say that it may have been presented at a geologically recent time scale – reinforced by its concentration in a region of young landmasses.

“These observations took only a few minutes of the lab’s time,” said Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Astronomical Research, Webb Intermediate Scientist who leads the Webb Cycle 1 Guaranteed Time observations of the Solar System. “Even in this short time, we’ve been able to do great science. This work gives the first hint of all the exciting solar system science we can do with the Web.”

Looking for a bloom

Villanueva’s team also looked for evidence of a steam explosion from Europa’s surface. Researchers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reported tentative detections of plumes in 2013 and 2016. 2017. However, it is difficult to find concrete evidence.

The new Web data showed no evidence of plume activity, which allowed Villanueva’s team to set a strict upper limit on the proportion of material that could be ejected. However, the team emphasized that their lack of detection does not rule out a plume.

“These plumes are variable and you can only see them sometimes. What we can say with 100% confidence is that we didn’t detect a plume on Europa when we made these observations through the web,” Hammel said.

These findings are supported by NASA’s Europa Clipper mission and ESA’s (European Space AgencyThe upcoming Jupiter IC Moons Explorer (Juice).

Both papers will be published in Science on September 21.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science laboratory. Webb solves the mysteries of our solar system, looks beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and explores the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international project led by NASA and its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

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