December 7, 2023

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Life on Jupiter’s moon? NASA’s Webb finds a carbon source on Europa’s surface

Life on Jupiter’s moon?  NASA’s Webb finds a carbon source on Europa’s surface

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has detected carbon dioxide on Europa, Jupiter’s moon, suggesting it may have conditions suitable for life. This discovery indicates exchanges between the moon’s icy surface and the subsurface ocean, underscoring Europa’s potential in upcoming space missions. This illustration depicts a plume of water vapor likely emanating from the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Source: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

Carbon suggests an environment favorable to life in the subsurface oceans

For as long as humans have gazed up at the night sky, we’ve wondered about life beyond Earth. Scientists now know that many places in our solar system may have conditions suitable for life. One of these is JupiterEuropa’s moon, a fascinating world with a salty subsurface ocean of liquid water, perhaps twice as much liquid water as all of Earth’s oceans combined. However, scientists have not confirmed whether Europa’s ocean contains biologically essential chemicals, especially carbon, which is the universal building block of life as we know it. Now, using James Webb Space TelescopeAstronomers have found carbon on Europa’s surface, which likely originated in this ocean. This discovery indicates the existence of a habitable environment in the vicinity of Europa.

Europe (Webb NIRCam image)

NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured this image of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Webb identified carbon dioxide on Europa’s icy surface that likely originated in the moon’s subsurface ocean. This discovery has important implications for the possibility of habitation in the vicinity of Europe. The Moon appears blue mostly because it is brightest at shorter infrared wavelengths. The white features correspond to the chaotic terrains of Powys Reggio (left) and Tara Reggio (center and right), which show enhanced carbon dioxide ice at the surface.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Gerónimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Samantha K Trumbo (Cornell University), Gerónimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope finds a carbon source on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa

Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the few planets in our solar system that could harbor conditions suitable for life. Previous research has shown that beneath its icy water crust lies a salty ocean of liquid water with a rocky sea floor. However, planetary scientists have not confirmed whether this ocean contains the chemicals needed for life, especially carbon.

Astronomers use data from NASAThe James Webb Space Telescope has identified carbon dioxide in a specific area on the icy surface of Europa. The analysis indicates that this carbon likely originated in the subsurface ocean and was not delivered by meteorites or other external sources. Moreover, they were deposited on a recent geological time scale. This discovery has important implications for the possibility of habitation in the vicinity of Europe.

“On Earth, life loves chemical diversity, and the more diversity the better. We are carbon-dependent life. Understanding the chemistry of Europa’s ocean will help us “We need to determine whether it is hostile to life as we know it, or whether it is a good place to live,” from two independent papers describing the findings.

“We now believe we have observational evidence that the carbon we see on Europa’s surface came from the ocean. This is not trivial. Carbon is a biologically essential element,” added Samantha Trumbo of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, lead author of the second paper analyzing this data.

NASA plans to launch its Europa Clipper spacecraft, which will make dozens of flybys of Europa to further investigate whether it could have conditions suitable for life, in October 2024.

Distribution of carbon dioxide in Europe

This graphic shows a map of Europa’s surface using NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in the first panel and compositional maps derived from Webb’s NIRSpec/IFU (Near Infrared Spectrometer Integrated Field Unit) data in all three panels next. In the compositional maps, white pixels correspond to carbon dioxide in the large-scale region of turbulent chaos terrain known as the Tara Reggio (center and right), with additional concentrations within parts of the Powys Reggio chaos region (left). The second and third panels show evidence of crystalline carbon dioxide, while the fourth panel indicates a complex, amorphous form of carbon dioxide.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Gerónimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Samantha K Trumbo (Cornell University), Gerónimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Superficial contact with the ocean

Webb found that carbon dioxide is most abundant on Europa’s surface in an area called Tara Reggio, a geologically young region with generally resurfaced terrain known as the “Chaos Terrane.” The surface ice has been disrupted, and there is likely an exchange of material between the subsurface ocean and the icy surface.

Previous notes from Hubble Space Telescope “It showed evidence of ocean-derived salt at Tara Reggio,” Trumbo explained. “Now we see that carbon dioxide is highly concentrated there as well. We think this means that the origin of the carbon is probably in the inland ocean.”

“Scientists are debating how connected Europa’s ocean is to its surface. “I think this question was a big impetus for Europa’s exploration,” Villanueva said. “This suggests we may be able to learn some fundamental things about the ocean’s composition even before we drill through the ice to get the full picture. “

Both teams identified carbon dioxide using data from the Webb Near-Infrared Spectrometer Integrated Field Unit (NIRSpec). This instrument mode provides spectra with a resolution of 200 x 200 miles (320 x 320 kilometers) on Europa’s surface, which has a diameter of 1,944 miles, allowing astronomers to pinpoint where specific chemicals are present.

Carbon dioxide is unstable on the surface of Europe. Therefore, scientists say it was likely supplied on a recent geological time scale – a conclusion strengthened by its concentration in an area with recent topography.

“These observations took only a few minutes of observatory time,” said Heidi Hamill of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, an interdisciplinary scientist leading Webb’s observations of the solar system’s first guaranteed orbit. “Even with this short period of time, we’ve been able to do really big science. This work gives a first glimpse at all the amazing solar system science we’ll be able to do with Webb.

Find Bloom

Villanueva’s team also looked for evidence of a plume of water vapor erupting from Europa’s surface. Researchers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reported initial plume discoveries in 2013 and 2016 and 2017. However, conclusive evidence was difficult to find.

Webb’s new data shows no evidence of plume activity, which allowed Villanueva’s team to set a strict upper limit on the rate of material potentially ejected. However, the team emphasized that their failure to detect does not rule out the presence of a plume.

“There is always the possibility that these plumes are variable and that you can only see them at certain times. All we can say with 100% confidence is that we did not detect a plume in Europe when we made these observations with Webb,” Hamill said.

These findings may help inform NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, as well as the European Space Agency (ESA).European Space Agencys) Jupiter’s Next Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE).

The two papers will be published in the journal Science on September 21.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s leading space science observatory. Webb solves the mysteries of our solar system, looks beyond the distant worlds around other stars, and explores the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. WEB is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

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