The Search for Life: Carbon Spotted on Europa’s Surface
The James Webb Space Telescope has made an exciting discovery on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Scientists believe they have found carbon on its surface, which may have originated from a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its icy facade. This finding raises the possibility that two crucial ingredients for life, carbon and water, may exist on this distant moon.
Europa has fascinated scientists since it was first observed up close by the Voyager spacecraft in 1979. Its entire surface is covered in ice that displays cracks and shifts akin to the way a frozen lake’s surface changes during spring thaw. This geological evidence suggests the presence of a subsurface ocean, possibly possessing more water than all the oceans on Earth.
Researchers have identified the carbon on Europa’s surface as carbon dioxide. They believe it emerged through cracks in the ice from the ocean below. The James Webb Space Telescope utilized its Near-Infrared Spectrograph to detect the light emitted by specific molecules, leading to the identification of the carbon dioxide continuously released from the ice.
While the presence of carbon does not provide definitive proof of life in Europa’s ocean, it serves as an important starting point in the search for extraterrestrial life. To further explore beneath the icy surface and unravel this mystery, two spacecraft missions and an ice-penetrating submarine experiment are in progress.
The Juice mission, launched by the European Space Agency, will journey for eight years to reach Jupiter and investigate Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, set to launch next year, will study Europa’s ice cover thickness and characterize its subsurface ocean using various instruments, including radar.
Both missions will conduct observations from Jupiter’s orbit and exclude landers. However, preparations are being made for a future mission that directly explores Europa’s ocean. A German group is testing a robot in Antarctica that can penetrate the thick ice and reach subglacial lakes, simulating the process a future lander might employ on Europa.
The TRIPLE (Technologies for Rapid Ice Penetration and subglacial Lake Exploration) program employs heat to melt through the glacial ice and then releases miniature autonomous submarines to explore the water below. Though challenging, similar operations in the depths of space, where Europa’s ice could be even thicker, would yield tremendous rewards.
Discovering life on another world, whether it be Europa, Mars, or a distant exoplanet, would bring us closer to answering the age-old question of our cosmic loneliness. It would raise new inquiries concerning the similarity between that alien life and ourselves. Are they based on carbon chemistry and DNA like us, or are they something entirely different?
The pursuit of finding extraterrestrial life has taken us on a journey spanning centuries. Curiosity and Perseverance rovers are examining rocks on Mars, while telescopes scan the cosmos for potentially habitable planets. Europa may provide the best opportunity to uncover life beyond Earth, and each discovery brings us closer to understanding our place in the universe.
– NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Discovers Carbon on Jupiter Moon Europa’s Surface (Space.com)
– Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (ESA)
– Europa Clipper (NASA)
– Technologies for Rapid Ice Penetration and subglacial Lake Exploration (TRIPLE) (Center for Marine Environmental Sciences/University of Bremen)