Europa is a distant and icy moon of Jupiter, with a smooth surface made of rock-hard ice. But lurking beneath that cold outer layer, there might be a liquid water ocean.
And this could potentially contain all the ingredients needed for life.
What’s going on in that hidden ocean is still something of a mystery, but some scientists are convinced that the conditions for life could be present.
To learn more about Europa and what’s needed for life to exist, take a look at this guide.
What Is Europa?
Europa is one of the 80 known moons of Jupiter. It’s the sixth-closest moon to Jupiter, and the sixth-largest moon in the solar system.
Europa is only slightly smaller than the Earth’s moon and is mostly made of silicate rock.
One of the defining characteristics of Europa is the icy crust that forms the smooth surface. And within this frozen moon, a subsurface ocean might be the best place to look for alien life.
What Are The Ingredients For Life?
To put it simply, there are three key ingredients that any planet or environment needs to harbor life. These ingredients are:
Without these, the planet wouldn’t be habitable. When we’re nosing around the universe for extraterrestrial life, these key ingredients are the first things we search for.
For a planet to be considered in the hospitable zone of its sun, then it must be at a distance where water can be present.
If a planet or celestial body has these three key ingredients, it’s still no guarantee of life. But it is a good indication that life might be possible, and it’s worth investigating further!
Does Europa Have The Ingredients For Life?
Europa has a lot of exciting potential for alien lifeforms because it does appear to have all the key ingredients needed for life.
Liquid water is one of the essential ingredients for life. Water acts as a solvent, dissolving substances such as nutrients and chemicals to be consumed by living organisms.
Water is also essential to the functioning of cells, transporting chemicals, and removing waste.
Beneath the thick icy crust of Europa, scientists believe that there is an ocean of liquid salty water. It’s thought that the heat that rises from tidal flexing allows the water to stay liquid.
Despite being hidden beneath that thick ice, it’s thought that the oceans of Europa could be between two or three times the size of the oceans on Earth.
Although the oceans of Europa have been theorized for a while, the idea came to prominence when the NASA Galileo spacecraft began orbiting Jupiter.
As the craft completed multiple flybys of Europa between 1995 and 2003, it detected a magnetic field created by Europa. The best explanation for this magnetic field is a salty ocean, moving beneath the icy crust.
Evidence for water can also, potentially, be seen on the surface of Europa. The process of tidal flexing and friction – oceans interacting with the core and the surface – creates heat converted from the orbital and rotational energy.
This heating process might be warming the surface, both crafting ridges and creating new ice to smooth out old craters.
There are several key chemicals that are seen as necessary for life to be able to develop. These chemicals include carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, and oxygen.
All these chemicals are common, and once played a key role in the development of life on Earth. And they might all have been present during the formation of Europa.
These essential chemicals could exist both within the icy surface, and in the liquid ocean below.
Again, tidal heating plays an important role. The tidal heating process could be causing the water to move and cycle, bringing nutrients up from the interior of the moon, through the ocean, and to the shell.
With this warming movement, the water could be rich with chemicals needed for life.
Oxygen exists on the surface of Europa, but it might also make its way through the rock-hard ice surface.
If the liquid water does at times interact with the atmosphere on the surface, then those oxygen molecules are likely to be present in the water.
Analyzing the waters of Europa could teach us a lot about exactly what chemicals might be found on the icy moon.
Energy is the third vital component needed for life. On Earth, we get our energy from the Sun. But Europa is significantly further away from the Sun, so life couldn’t be powered by photosynthesis.
Instead of photosynthesis, life on Europa might instead be powered by chemical reactions.
The radiation levels on Europa are much higher than those on Earth, due to its close proximity to Jupiter.
If humans were to spend a day on the surface of Europa, they would become seriously ill. Even 24-hour exposure could be fateful.
But this radiation might be exactly why life is possible on Europa, as life would have developed below the surface.
Radiation from Jupiter could split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. While light hydrogen floats away, oxygen stays behind.
As previously discussed, that oxygen might be able to make its way below the crust to the ocean below.
As a reactive element, oxygen could then possibly release energy during chemical reactions, which could lead to life.
Deep below the surface, there could be another source for energy on Europa. Chemical reactions occurring between the rocky surface and the salty ocean might lead to the creation of materials rich with hydrogen.
When this then reacts with hot rocks, chemical nutrients are created that might power simple organisms.
Are There Any Signs Of Life On Europa?
If there is life on Europa, then we’ve yet to find it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Any life on Europa wouldn’t be found on the surface.
Instead, we’d have to look deep within the subsurface ocean, or dip far into that layer of icy crust.
Or there might be a slightly simpler method for checking. Europa has been seen to release incredible plumes, up to 120 miles high.
It’s theorized that these plumes might be water vapor, erupting from near the South Pole. If these were analyzed, they might reveal more about the potential for life on Europa.
However, it’s likely that this water plume erupts from the crust, rather than the ocean. If there were no signs of life present, that wouldn’t rule out organisms existing near potential hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
What Does It Mean If There’s Life On Europa?
If there is life on Europa, then this has some exciting implications for life elsewhere in space.
For a start, any life on Europa will have developed independently of life on Earth. That means that life developing might be easier than we ever realized.
The presence of life on Europa could indicate a huge possibility of life in other corners of the Universe.
Although there might be life on Europa, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a candidate for human colonization.
The distance, temperature, exposure to radiation, and low gravity all mean human life on Europa would struggle.
Europa has the three key ingredients for life: water, chemicals, and energy.
But to actually find life, we’d need to look deep below the icy surface, and into the rocky substrate of the theorized salty ocean.
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