Recent observations made by the James Webb Space Telescope have spurred two independent research studies, both suggesting that the CO2 ice present on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, has its origins in the moon’s subsurface ocean. These significant findings shed new light on the composition of Europa’s internal ocean, which is a critical focus in the quest for extraterrestrial life.
Two separate investigations indicate that Europa’s surface CO2 has its roots within the moon’s subsurface ocean.
The latest observations from the James Webb Space Telescope reveal that the CO2 ice found on Europa’s surface likely originates from the moon’s hidden subsurface ocean, further underscoring the presence of substantial carbon reserves in this potential hotspot for extraterrestrial life.
Understanding the Source of CO2 on Jupiter’s Moon Europa
Two independent research teams have utilized recent data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to examine the carbon dioxide (CO2) ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Their collective findings suggest that the CO2 found on Europa’s surface comes from a source deep within the moon’s icy body, shedding new light on the largely unknown composition of Europa’s internal ocean.
Beneath its solid crust of water ice, Jupiter’s moon, Europa, is believed to harbor a subsurface ocean of salty liquid water. This unique feature makes Europa a prime candidate in the search for extraterrestrial life within our solar system. The potential habitability of this hidden ocean hinges on its chemical composition, including the presence of crucial elements like carbon.
Previous research had identified the existence of solid CO2 ice on Europa’s surface, but the origin of this CO2 remained a mystery. It was uncertain whether the CO2 came from the subsurface ocean, was deposited on the surface through meteorite impacts, or was formed there through interactions with Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Determining the source of this CO2 is vital for understanding the chemistry of Europa’s internal ocean.
NIRCam (the Near Infrared Camera) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured an image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, revealing the presence of carbon dioxide on its icy surface. This discovery has profound implications for the potential habitability of Europa’s ocean. The moon’s predominantly blue appearance in the image is due to its greater brightness at shorter infrared wavelengths. The white regions correspond to the chaotic terrains known as Powys Regio (left) and Tara Regio (center and right), displaying elevated levels of carbon dioxide ice on the surface. (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Gerónimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Samantha K Trumbo (Cornell University), Gerónimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Alyssa Pagan (STScI))
Analyzing the Distribution of CO2 on Europa
In two separate research endeavors, scientists have employed near-infrared spectroscopy to examine the CO2 on Europa’s surface, using data obtained from JWST.
In one study, conducted by Samantha Trumbo and Michael Brown, JWST data was utilized to map the distribution of CO2 on Europa. Their findings revealed that the highest concentration of CO2 is situated in Tara Regio, an approximately 1,800 square kilometer area characterized by “chaos terrain,” a region with geological disturbances and resurfaced materials. According to their analysis, the amount of CO2 present in this recently resurfaced region, which represents some of the most recent changes on Europa’s surface, strongly suggests that the CO2 was sourced internally, likely originating within Europa’s subsurface ocean and subsequently brought to the surface through recent geological events.
However, it’s worth noting that the formation of CO2 on the surface, resulting from ocean-derived organics or carbonates, cannot be entirely ruled out. Regardless of the interpretation, these findings confirm the presence of carbon in Europa’s subsurface ocean.
This graphic presents a map of Europa’s surface using NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in the initial panel, followed by compositional maps derived from Webb’s NIRSpec/IFU (Near Infrared Spectrograph’s Integral Field Unit) data in the subsequent three panels. In these compositional maps, the white pixels represent carbon dioxide found within the large-scale chaotic terrain known as Tara Regio (center and right), with additional concentrations within sections of the chaotic region known as Powys Regio (left). The second and third panels indicate evidence of crystalline carbon dioxide, while the fourth panel illustrates a complexed and amorphous form of carbon dioxide. (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Gerónimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Samantha K Trumbo (Cornell University), Gerónimo Villanueva (NASA-GSFC), Alyssa Pagan (STScI))
Concurrent Insights from Another Investigation
In a separate study utilizing the same JWST data, Geronimo Villanueva and fellow researchers noted that the CO2 on Europa’s surface is intermixed with other compounds. Their findings also highlight that the CO2 is notably concentrated in Tara Regio, suggesting that the carbon on the moon’s surface likely originates from within Europa.
The researchers conducted measurements on the ice’s 12C/13C isotopic ratio, yet they were unable to definitively distinguish between an abiotic or biogenic source. Furthermore, the team searched for signs of volatile material erupting through Europa’s icy crust, a phenomenon known as plume activity. Although prior studies had reported evidence of such plumes, the research team did not detect any plume activity during their JWST observations.
The collective results of these two studies complement each other, solidifying the conclusion that Europa’s subsurface ocean is rich in carbon.
For more information on this discovery, refer to NASA’s report titled “Webb Finds Carbon Source on Surface of Europa.”
“The distribution of CO2 on Europa indicates an internal source of carbon” by Samantha K. Trumbo and Michael E. Brown, September 21, 2023, Science.
“Endogenous CO2 ice mixture on the surface of Europa and no detection of plume activity” by G. L. Villanueva, H. B. Hammel, S. N. Milam, S. Faggi, V. Kofman, L. Roth, K. P. Hand, L. Paganini, J. Stansberry, J. Spencer, S. Protopapa, G. Strazzulla, G. Cruz-Mermy, C. R. Glein, R. Cartwright and G. Liuzzi, September 21, 2023, Science.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Europa CO2 Origin
What did recent observations by the James Webb Space Telescope reveal about Europa?
Recent observations by the James Webb Space Telescope suggest that the CO2 ice found on Jupiter’s moon Europa likely originates from its subsurface ocean, providing insights into the composition of this hidden ocean.
Why is Europa’s subsurface ocean of interest in the search for extraterrestrial life?
Europa’s subsurface ocean is of great interest in the search for extraterrestrial life because liquid water is a key ingredient for life as we know it. Understanding the composition and potential habitability of this ocean is crucial in assessing the possibility of life on Europa.
What were the findings of the two independent studies mentioned in the text?
Both studies, using JWST data, indicate that the CO2 on Europa’s surface comes from a source within the moon’s subsurface ocean. They also highlight the presence of carbon in the subsurface ocean, a critical element for the potential existence of life.
How did researchers determine that the CO2 originated from Europa’s subsurface ocean?
Researchers analyzed near-infrared spectroscopy of CO2 on Europa’s surface and found that the highest concentration of CO2 is in a region called Tara Regio, suggesting an internal source. However, they couldn’t definitively rule out other formation mechanisms.
What is the significance of the carbon discovery on Europa?
The discovery of carbon on Europa’s surface is significant because it suggests that the subsurface ocean contains essential elements for life. Carbon is a fundamental building block for organic molecules, which are necessary for the potential development of life.
What further research or implications arise from these findings?
These findings open avenues for further research into Europa’s potential habitability and the search for extraterrestrial life. Understanding the chemistry of the subsurface ocean and its carbon content is essential for future exploration missions to Europa.
More about Europa CO2 Origin
- NASA’s Webb Finds Carbon Source on Surface of Europa
- Science: “The distribution of CO2 on Europa indicates an internal source of carbon”
- Science: “Endogenous CO2 ice mixture on the surface of Europa and no detection of plume activity”