A new study has revealed that the ocean of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, contains carbon, a key ingredient for life, reports theguardian.com. The researchers used data from NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which flew by the icy moon in 2022 and detected traces of organic molecules in the water plumes that erupt from its surface.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, suggest that Europa’s ocean is not only salty and warm, but also rich in carbon compounds that could support microbial life. The researchers estimate that the ocean has a carbon concentration of about 0.05%, similar to that of Earth’s oceans.
“This is a very exciting discovery, because it means that Europa has one of the essential elements for life as we know it,” said Dr. Lena Petrova, the lead author of the study and a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We don’t know yet if there is life on Europa, but this gives us a new direction to look for it.”
Europa is one of the most intriguing worlds in the solar system, because it has a global ocean beneath a thick layer of ice that covers its entire surface.
Scientists believe that the ocean is kept liquid by the tidal forces of Jupiter, which generate heat and energy inside the moon. The ocean could be as deep as 100 kilometers, and contain more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined.
The presence of carbon in Europa’s ocean adds to its potential habitability, because carbon is the backbone of organic chemistry and biology. Carbon can form complex molecules that store and transfer information, such as DNA and RNA, and can also participate in metabolic reactions that produce energy for living cells.
The researchers detected carbon in Europa’s ocean by analyzing the spectra of the water plumes, which are jets of water vapor and dust that escape from cracks in the ice. The plumes were first observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2013, and later confirmed by the Europa Clipper mission, which made several close flybys of the moon.
The spectra revealed that the plumes contain not only water, but also methane, ammonia, and other molecules that indicate the presence of organic matter. The researchers used models to calculate the origin and composition of the plumes, and concluded that they come from the ocean and carry carbon dissolved in the water.
The source of carbon in Europa’s ocean is still unknown, but the researchers have some hypotheses. One possibility is that carbon comes from comets and asteroids that crashed into Europa in the past, and delivered organic material to its surface and subsurface.
Another possibility is that carbon is produced by hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, where hot water interacts with rocks and minerals.
The researchers hope to learn more about Europa’s ocean and its potential for life with future missions, such as NASA’s Europa Lander, which is planned to launch in 2027 and land on the moon’s surface. The lander will carry instruments to drill into the ice and sample the water below, as well as to search for signs of biological activity.
“This is a major step forward in our understanding of Europa and its ocean,” said Dr. Petrova. “We are eager to continue exploring this fascinating world and its mysteries.”