NASA Study Shows Europa's Oceans Can Harbor Alien Life

Thursday, 19 May 2016 - 11:24AM
Space
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Thursday, 19 May 2016 - 11:24AM
NASA Study Shows Europa's Oceans Can Harbor Alien Life
Jupiter's moon Europa has long been considered a prime candidate for the discovery of alien life, as a result of the subterranean liquid oceans beneath its icy shell and possible volcanic activity. Now, yet another study has shown that Europa's oceans are conducive to the evolution of life, as NASA just published research which shows that Europa could harbor life even without volcanic activity.

Europa's neighboring moon, Io, is the most volcanically active body in our solar system. And since Europa is in a nearby environment and subject to similar conditions, scientists have long thought Europa might have similar volcanic activity on its surface, which could lead to hydrothermal vents that leak mineral-rich hot water into the oceans, making them a hotbed for life.

As a result, much of the research surrounding Europa has focused on whether it has volcanic activity on its surface. But according to NASA's new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, volcanic activity is not necessary for the oceans to have the requisite chemical composition for life. For their research, they modeled the amount of hydrogen and oxygen that could be produced on Europa using processes that don't involve volcanism, and found that the proportions would be similar to that on Earth, with oxygen produced at approximately ten times the rate of hydrogen. As a result, the chemical composition of the ocean could be similar to that on Earth as well, which means it could be a huge bastion for life.

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"We're studying an alien ocean using methods developed to understand the movement of energy and nutrients in Earth's own systems," NASA planetary geophysicist and lead author Steve Vance 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."
Closing quote

Aside from the cycle of oxygen and hydrogen, the key to the chemical composition that gives rise to life is oxidants, or compounds that react to hydrogen. Oxidants are cycled into the ocean when radiation from Jupiter splits water molecules on the icy surface to create oxygen and other compounds, which are then returned to the ocean when the surface is cycled back to the interior. Scientists previously thought that volcanism was necessary in order to prevent the water from becoming too acidic, but according to the study, a huge amount of hydrogen would be produced if the temperature were lower, which would balance out the flux of oxidants. 

Opening quote
"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," said co-author Kevin Hand, a planetary scientist at JPL. "Whether or not life and biological processes complete the circuit is part of what motivates our exploration of Europa."
Closing quote
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