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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Explained: What a new research about Jupiter’s moon Europa means

The team’s findings were published in the journal Nature Communications this week.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 23, 2022 12:16:33 pm
Europa is the smallest of Jupiter's four Galilean moons. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

In their new research, a team of researchers from Stanford University have said that on one of Jupiter’s moons Europa, a prime candidate for life in the solar system, there might be an abundance of water pockets beneath formations called double ridges.

It is already known that Europa, whose surface is mostly solid water ice, contains water beneath it. The researchers are now saying that the double ridges – the formations which are most common on Europa’s surface and are similar to those seen on Earth’s Greenland ice sheet – are formed over shallow pockets of water.

The team’s findings were published in the journal Nature Communications this week.

About Europa

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Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon and its diameter is about one-quarter that of the Earth. Even though Europa has a very thin oxygen atmosphere, it is considered one of the most promising places in the solar system to find present-day environments that are suitable for life beyond the Earth.

It is also believed that underneath Europa’s icy surface the amount of water is twice that on Earth. NASA notes that scientists believe Europa’s ice shell is 15-25 km thick and is floating on an ocean, which is estimated to be between 60-150 km deep. Interestingly, while its diameter is less than the Earth’s, Europa probably contains twice the amount of the water in all of the Earth’s oceans.

NASA is expected to launch its Europa Clipper in 2024. The module will orbit Jupiter and conduct multiple close flybys to Europa to gather data on the moon’s atmosphere, surface and its interior.

What are the implications of the recent findings?

The central implication is that the shallow water pockets beneath the double ridge, like surfaces seen on the Greenland ice sheet on Earth and those seen on Europa’s ice shell, increase the potential habitability of the moon.

The ice shell, which is potentially miles thick, has been a difficult prospect for scientists to sample. But according to the new evidence gathered by the Stanford team, the ice shell is believed to be less of a barrier and more of a dynamic system. This means that the ice shell does not behave like an inert block of ice, but rather undergoes a variety of geological and hydrological processes.

“Because it’s (the double ridges) closer to the surface, where you get interesting chemicals from space, other moons and the volcanoes of Io, there’s a possibility that life has a shot if there are pockets of water in the shell,” senior author of the study, Dustin Schroeder, was quoted as saying in a press release.

“If the mechanism we see in Greenland is how these things happen on Europa, it suggests there’s water everywhere,” he added.

The double-ridge feature

The study co-authors noticed the double-ridge formations during a lab group presentation about Europa. They observed that the formations looked extremely similar to a minor feature on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet.

“We were working on something totally different related to climate change and its impact on the surface of Greenland when we saw these tiny double ridges – and we were able to see the ridges go from ‘not formed’ to ‘formed’, ” Schroeder was quoted as saying in the release.

When they examined this further, they found that the “M” shaped crest in Greenland that is known as the double-ridge could be a miniature version of the most prominent feature found on the ice sheets of Europa.

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