Scientists have discovered the presence of one of the most crucial ingredients for life on Jupiter’s icy moon.
When it comes to seeking out signs of extraterrestrial life within our own solar system, no target has proven more tantalizing than Europa – a world thought to be home to a potentially habitable ocean of liquid water hidden deep beneath a thick icy exterior shell.
It’s by no means a large world – measuring around 2,000 miles across (slightly smaller than the Earth’s moon) – but its ocean, if it has one, could be up to 100 miles deep.
Now scientists analyzing data captured by the James Webb Space Telescope have revealed one more reason to get excited about its prospects as a home to alien life – the presence of carbon.
The findings suggest that carbon-dioxide ice on Europa’s surface has come from the depths of the Jovian moon’s subterranean ocean, several miles down beneath the icy crust.
“This is a big deal and I am very excited by it,” said study co-author and geochemist Dr Christopher Glein. “We don’t know yet if life is actually present in Europa’s ocean.”
“But this new finding adds evidence to the case that Europa’s ocean would be a good bet for hosting extant life. That environment looks tantalizing from the perspective of astrobiology.”
The discovery is particularly important because of where the carbon is likely to have originated.
“The discovery of carbon dioxide in salt-rich regions of Europa’s ice shell indicates that the CO2 is coming from the ocean below and not from outside sources, such as meteorites and ions bombarding Europa,” said NASA’s Kevin Hand.