Comet impacts on Jupiter’s moon Europa could bring the potential for life into the hidden subsurface ocean, according to a study by scientists at the University of Texas.
Europa is more than five times farther from the Sun than Earth, according to NASA, but study lead author Evan Carnahan said scientists estimate there is more water on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn than on Earth. Carnahan said the study looked at what it would take to break through what they believe is an icy shell over Europa’s ocean to provide a “compatible chemical environment for life.”
“We see that (Europe) is littered with meteor impacts and asteroids hitting this outer shell,” said Carnahan, a UT graduate student. “One of the hypotheses previously was that if you take a really big meteor, it could collide with the outer ice shell and break through the ice shell tens of kilometers thick, which will mix all the ingredients you have for life on the surface. into this subsurface ocean and become a habitable ocean or a potentially habitable ocean.”
Carnahan said scientists believe there is an ocean on Europa because of photographs showing water pouring out of the moon’s surface.
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Carnahan said that one of life’s essential ingredients, oxidizers, effectively provide the oceans of Europa with the same oxygen produced by plants for the Earth.
“The thought is that … you need to form what are called redox reactions in the Europa ocean,” Carnahan said. “Oxygen from the surface in the form of these oxidants is transported to the underlying ocean, where the ocean is what is called reduction, and this allows these reactions to occur.”
However, Mark Hesse, a researcher involved in the study, said that large comet impacts do not happen very often due to the stabilization of the solar system, but various small comets are still capable of causing reactions that slowly allow the ice to melt and still allow melt ice. ingredients for life to get to the water.
“This (comet strike) is the first possible physical mechanism that has been proposed to suppress some of these oxidizers and therefore create the redox gradients that everyone considers necessary to sustain life,” said Hesse, assistant professor of geological sciences at UT. “That alone won’t create a lot of fish, but this is the first time someone has come up with a real mechanism.”
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Hesse said the Europa Clipper robotic space mission, which launches next year, will explore and confirm whether Europa has a subsurface ocean and whether the melt pockets proposed in the study exist.
Carnahan hopes the study will shed light on how Europa’s ocean could become habitable.
“This was the first of three papers that really encouraged the idea that underground oceans could potentially be habitable,” Carnahan said. “I was thrilled with the results, which are curving in that direction, as opposed to these frozen, inhospitable wastelands.”
This story was originally published by The Daily Texan, an independent student-run newspaper at the University of Texas.