Jupiter’s moon Europa may be home to a carbonated ocean, not in the sense of it being effervescent, but rather, brimming with carbon dioxide. This intriguing possibility, derived from observations made by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), suggests a potential for life-sustaining conditions beneath Europa’s icy surface. The presence of carbon, a vital element to life as we know it, in such abundance could tilt the scales in favour of habitability in this extraterrestrial ocean.
Two independent research groups have scrutinised the JWST’s observations, reaching an identical conclusion: carbon dioxide appears to be seeping upwards to Europa’s icy surface. It is most profuse in a region known as Tara Regio, a chaotic terrain marked by a jumble of pits, ridges, cracks, and domes. This relatively young area of Europa’s surface has been shaped by interactions with the subterranean ocean over millions of years, offering tantalising hints about the moon’s geologic and potentially, biologic history.
Carbon-Rich Seas Beneath Europa’s Icy Shell: A Sign of Life?
The vast ocean inside Jupiter’s moon Europa might be filled with carbon dioxide, as per recent observations from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This discovery might be a turning point in the search for extraterrestrial life as carbon is a vital building block for life, suggesting potentially habitable conditions beneath Europa’s icy exterior.
A Carbon Dioxide Rich Ocean
Two independent teams analyzed data from JWST and came to a similar conclusion. They observed that carbon dioxide seems to be continually seeping up to Europa’s icy surface. The highest concentration of this gas was found in an area known as Tara Regio, a region marked by a chaotic terrain consisting of pits, ridges, cracks, and domes. Scientists consider Tara Regio to be a relatively young area of the surface, shaped by its interaction with the underground ocean over millions of years.
Geronimo Villanueva from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center elaborates, "The strongest signal is coming from the chaos terrain, which is geologically fresher than other areas of Europa. That means it’s highly likely that this material is new, and it has to come from the interior.” Raised concentrations were also detected in other areas of chaos terrain, which did not match the expected levels if the carbon dioxide had come from external sources like comets.
The Biological Significance of Carbon
The presence of carbon dioxide is encouraging for the possibility of life beneath Europa’s icy shell, as all known forms of life depend on carbon to create more complex molecules known as organics. Samantha Trumbo from Cornell University emphasizes, “Carbon is a biologically crucial element, so it’s important to figure out how it got to Europa, how much of it is there, and in what form it’s there.”
More Observations to Follow
So far, JWST has only turned its focus on Europa once. However, with plans for three more observations in place, scientists hope to get a more holistic view of Europa’s surface. These future observations could provide a wealth of information about the composition and potential habitability of its seas.
In conclusion, these recent discoveries about Europa’s carbon-dioxide-rich ocean are a significant step forward in our search for extraterrestrial life. While we eagerly await the results of future JWST observations, one thing is clear: Europa continues to surprise and inspire us in our quest to understand the universe.
Science, DOI:10.1126/science.adg4270, DOI:10.1126/science.adg4155