Evidence of carbon dioxide on Jupiter’s moon Europa, as detected by the James Webb Space Telescope, has raised expectations that the moon’s vast underground ocean could potentially support life. While scientists have long suspected the existence of a massive saltwater ocean beneath Europa’s icy surface, determining whether it contains the necessary chemical elements for life has proven challenging. However, recent studies using data from the Webb telescope’s near-infrared spectrometer have shed new light on the presence of carbon dioxide on Europa’s surface and its source.
Examining the data obtained from the Webb telescope, two independent research teams from the United States investigated the distribution of carbon dioxide on Europa. The findings of their respective studies were published in the journal Science. Researchers discovered that the highest concentrations of CO2 were located in an area named Tara Regio, spanning approximately 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles). This region is characterized by chaotic terrain, marked by rugged ridges and cracks. The exact mechanism behind the formation of chaotic terrain remains unclear, but one theory proposes that warm ocean water may rise to the surface, melting the ice and subsequently refreezing over time, resulting in uneven craggy landscapes.
The Origin of Carbon Dioxide
One of the primary objectives of the studies was to determine whether the detected carbon dioxide originated from sources other than Europa’s subsurface ocean. The first study, led by Samantha Trumbo, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, concluded that the carbon dioxide is likely derived from the moon’s interior, specifically the internal ocean. However, the possibility that the carbon dioxide was released from the planet’s interior as rock-like carbonate minerals, subsequently breaking apart due to irradiation to form CO2, could not be entirely ruled out.
Table Salt and Internal Chemistry
In addition to carbon dioxide, researchers have also discovered the presence of table salt in Tara Regio. Consequently, this area appears more yellow compared to the rest of Europa’s typically scarred white plains. Scientists theorize that table salt may have also risen from Europa’s hidden ocean. This new information provides valuable insights into the internal chemistry of Europa, giving scientists a glimpse of the conditions that might be present within its subsurface ocean.
Failing to Spot Plumes
Despite the hope of detecting plumes of water or volatile gases shooting out of Europa’s surface, the Webb telescope data did not reveal any such evidence. The absence of visible plumes raises questions about the current state of activity within Europa’s subsurface ocean. However, this does not discount the possibility of subsurface activity or the existence of hidden plumes of water that may go undetected with the current technology.
To gain further insight into Europa’s mysterious ocean and potential for supporting life, two significant space missions are planned. The European Space Agency’s Jupiter moon probe, Juice, launched in April, while NASA’s Europa Clipper mission is scheduled for October 2024. Olivier Witasse, the project scientist for Juice, expressed enthusiasm for the new studies, considering them to be “very exciting.” When Juice conducts flybys of Europa in 2032, it will gather extensive new data on surface chemistry and other relevant parameters. The mission will also investigate two of Jupiter’s other moons, Ganymede and Callisto, where carbon has also been detected. Witasse emphasized that the primary goal of the Juice and Europa Clipper missions is to determine whether these icy moons possess the necessary conditions to support life. However, definitive proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life will remain elusive.
The discovery of carbon dioxide on Europa’s surface using data from the James Webb Space Telescope reinforces the possibility of a hidden ocean beneath its icy shell. The presence of carbon dioxide and table salt suggests that Europa’s subsurface ocean may contain the necessary chemical elements for life. Although the origin of the carbon dioxide remains uncertain, ongoing missions such as Juice and Europa Clipper aim to further investigate these icy moons and shed light on their potential to support life. While the search for extraterrestrial life continues, these findings highlight the importance of understanding our Solar System’s diverse environments and the possibility of life beyond Earth.