Good news for the search for extraterrestrial life: the ridges in the ice caps of Jupiter’s moon

The surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa looks a lot like the ice sheet in Greenland. This indicates that liquid water on the Moon is less deep under the surface than is assumed, facilitating the search for life.

Dennis Findel

Astronomers see one of dozens of moons around Jupiter in Europe, a promising candidate in the search for extraterrestrial life. The Moon appears to have a huge, habitable ocean of liquid water. However, finding out whether living things swim in it is not so easy: the ocean is covered with a layer of ice several kilometers thick, which makes sampling very difficult.

However, a new study conducted by scientists at Stanford University in the United States sheds new light on this issue. Many reservoirs of liquid water can be found in the ice sheet itself, which in itself constitutes a habitable environment. That might make the mission of a future space mission less complicated: Instead of having to dig miles into the ice, you could look for signs of life near the surface.

sea ​​level rise

The fact that researchers have come to this conclusion is just a coincidence. Originally they were not interested in Jupiter’s moon, but with climate research in Greenland. Here they studied the growth and retreat of ice sheets and their effect on sea level rise. Using radar images, among other things, the team saw the formation of a “double ice chain,” which was created by liquid water refrozen in reservoirs below the surface. This pushed the upper ice sheet upward, creating two M-shaped peaks.

To their surprise, the researchers saw the same distinctive shape in images of Europa’s surface when they attended a presentation on Jupiter’s moon. Astronomers noticed these structures on satellite images as early as the 1990s, but no definitive explanation for their origin was yet available. Although Europe’s double glaciers are much larger than those in Greenland — about 300 meters high, with valleys about one kilometer wide between them — the nearly identical shape suggests they may have formed in a similar way, the team says.

This means that the ice crust in Europe is not a solid barrier, but a dynamic system. “If the ice edges on Europa were formed by the same mechanism that we see in Greenland, that indicates that there is water everywhere there,” said geophysicist Dustin Schroeder, a member of the research team. When water reservoirs in Greenland’s ice fill, among other things, with currents of meltwater, the waters in Europe will be forced out of the ocean deep underground through cracks in the ice crust. This relates to the earlier discovery that the Moon regularly ejects plumes of water vapor into space.

life chance

Future space missions to Jupiter’s moon, including NASA’s Europa Clipper, which is scheduled to launch in 2024, should provide answers. Using radar images, they can examine the ice crust in a similar way as in Greenland. If the measurements match, this is a strong indication that the same process is happening here.

If Europe really does have reservoirs of water in the ice crust, that’s good news for astronomers. Not only does it make the search for life easier, but it may also increase the likelihood that life will ever exist. “Because the water is closer to the surface, where interesting nutrients circulate from space and neighboring moons, life may have a chance here,” Schroeder says.

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Megan Vasquez

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