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Europa's Ocean: Less Hospitable for Life Than Previously Thought?

New Findings Suggest Jupiter's Moon Europa May Have Less Oxygen in Its Subsurface Ocean

In a new study* that may dampen hopes of finding life in our solar system beyond Earth, recent research suggests that Europa, one of Jupiter's largest moons, might possess significantly less oxygen in its subsurface ocean than previously estimated. This discovery has implications for the moon's potential to support life, a question that has intrigued scientists and enthusiasts alike for decades.



Europa has long been a prime candidate in the search for extra-terrestrial life within our solar system due to its vast subsurface ocean, believed to be kept liquid by the gravitational pull from Jupiter. The presence of water in liquid form combined with the assumption of a considerable amount of dissolved oxygen—potentially produced by the irradiation of surface ice—has fuelled speculation that the moon could harbour life.


However, the recent study challenges these optimistic projections. Scientists have developed new models that provide a more nuanced understanding of the processes that might limit the production of oxygen on Europa. These models suggest that the oxygen levels in Europa's ocean could be much lower than that necessary to support Earth-like aerobic life forms. The findings imply that if life does exist in Europa's dark, cold waters, it may have to rely on mechanisms that are different from those known to sustain life on Earth.


The research utilized advanced simulations to analyse the interaction between the moon's surface ice and the charged particles emitted by Jupiter. The results indicated that the process of radiolysis, which would split water molecules in the ice into hydrogen and oxygen, may be less efficient than previously thought.


Consequently, less oxygen would be available to be cycled into the ocean below.

These revelations do not entirely rule out the possibility of life on Europa but suggest that life, if it exists, might have to depend on alternative biochemistry or energy sources. The study highlights the importance of future missions to Europa, such as the upcoming Europa Clipper mission by NASA, set to launch in the 2020s. This mission aims to further investigate the moon's ice shell and subsurface ocean, providing crucial data that could shed light on the moon's habitability.



*Oxygen production from dissociation of Europa’s water-ice surface

Europa Clipper Mission


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