The oceans of Europa could have the same balance of chemicals as Earth, making it one of the most promising candidates in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have released a new study, in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, modelling Europa’s underground sea.
“We’re studying an alien ocean using methods developed to understand the movement of energy and nutrients in Earth’s own systems,” Steve Vance, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
“The cycling of oxygen and hydrogen in Europa’s ocean will be a major driver for Europa’s ocean chemistry and any life there, just as it is on Earth.”
The study compared the moon’s potential for producing hydrogen and oxygen to that of Earth by calculating how much hydrogen could be released as seawater reacts with rock, a process called ‘serpentinisation’.
The team found that “the amounts of hydrogen would be comparable in scale” to that of Earth – meaning that oxygen production is about ten times higher than hydrogen production.
“The oxidants from the ice are like the positive terminal of a battery, and the chemicals from the seafloor, called reductants, are like the negative terminal. Whether or not life and biological processes complete the circuit is part of what motivates our exploration of Europa,” said Kevin Hand, co-author of the study
Previously, scientists have speculated that Europa would need to have volcanic activity taking place to allow mineral-laden hot water to bubble up from the sea floor in order to provide the chemicals for life.
NASA is hoping to send a mission to further explore Europa within the next 15 years.