Jupiter’s moon of Europa is one of the best and most intriguing candidates for extra-terrestrial life in our Solar System. For many decades, scientists have known that beneath its icy outer-shell, a warm, liquid ocean resides. Due largely to interaction with Jupiter’s strong magnetic field – which causes heat-generating tidal forces in Europa’s interior – these warm waters may host life.
And now, new models suggest that its ice-covered waters are turbulent near the lower latitudes. This is what gives rise to its chaotic equatorial landscapes, but intriguingly, may also make it easier for life to make it to the surface. This contradicts previously held beliefs that Europa’s life was contained beneath it’s outer shell, and will mean that any missions mounted to Europa may have an easier time spotting it.
Thanks to ongoing observation of the planet’s surface – especially the Galileo and New Horizons space probes which provided comprehensive and detailed images – it has been known that Europa’s surface features are not consistent. The landscape is marked by features of disrupted ice known as chaos terrains, geological features that are characterized by huge chunks of ice that have broken away and then re-froze into chaotic patterns.
These models were produced by University of Texas geophysicist Krista Soderlund and her colleagues. Based on computer simulations, Soderlund and her colleagues have theorized that turbulent global ocean currents move Europa’s internal heat to the surface most efficiently in regions closest to the moon’s equator. This is likely causing the melting and upwelling at the surface, and why regions further north and south appear to be smoother.
In addition, the models indicate that given Europa’s spin, heat flow, and other factors, it likely percolates upward at about 1m per second or so — which is remarkably fast. This would explain why the equatorial regions appear to be so fragmented. But it also means that these areas are also likely yo be relatively fragile and soft, which means that upward currents could bring nutrients and even living organisms to the surface.
Hence why any potential search for signs of life on this moon would now appear to be considerably easier. If missions are indeed mounted to Europa in the not-too-distant future, either involving probes or manned missions (most likely in that order), their best bet for finding life would be to land at the equator. Then, with some drilling, they could obtain core samples that would determine whether or not life-sustaining nutrients and organic particles exist beneath the ice.
Hopefully, these missions won’t run afoul of any life that doesn’t take too well to their presence. We don’t want a re-enactment of Europa Report on our hands now do we?