The search for life has led astronomers to the icy moons in our Solar System. Among those moons, Europa has attracted a lot of attention. Europa is Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon—and the sixth-largest in the Solar System—at 3,100 kilometres (1,900 mi) in diameter. Scientists think that its oceans could contain two or three times as much water as Earth’s oceans. The only problem is, that water is hidden under a sheet of planet-wide ice that could be between 2km and 30km (1.2 miles and 18.6 miles) thick.
A team of scientists is working hard on the problem. Andrew Dombard, associate professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is part of a team that presented a possible solution. At the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington, D.C., they presented their idea: a nuclear-powered tunneling robot that could tunnel its way through the ice and into the ocean.
Ever since the Pioneer and Voyager probes passed through the Jovian system in the 1970s, NASA and other space agencies have dreamed of one-day sending a mission to Europa. Beyond Earth, it is considered one of the most promising candidates for finding life, which could exist in the subsurface ocean that lies beneath the moon’s icy crust.
One of these concepts is known as the Cool High Impact Method for Exploring Down into Europan Subsurface (ARCHIMEDES), a proposed direct-laser penetrator that will use a laser light carried by an optical fiber tether to penetrate Europa’s icy crust. This mission could provide future missions with access to the ocean that exists beneath Europa’s surface and enable the search for life there.
Jupiter’s moon Europa has been the subject of fascination ever since the Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager1 and 2 missions passed through the system back in the 1970s. While the moon has no viable atmosphere and is bombarded by intense radiation from Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, scientists believe that one of the most likely places to find life beyond Earth exists beneath its icy surface.
Little wonder then why multiple missions are being planned to study this moon up-close. However, if and when those missions reach Europa sometime in the next decade, they will have to contend with some sharp surface features that could make it hard to land. Such is the conclusion of a new study by researchers from Britain, the US and NASA’s Ames Research Center, which indicates that Europa’s surface is covered in bladed terrain.
Ever since the Galileo probe provided compelling evidence for the existence of a global ocean beneath the surface of Europa in the 1990s, scientists have wondered when we might be able to send another mission to this icy moon and search for possible signs of life. Most of these mission concepts call for an orbiter or lander than will study Europa’s surface, searching the icy sheet for signs of biosignatures turned up from the interior.
Unfortunately, Europa’s surface is constantly bombarded by radiation, which could alter or destroy material transported to the surface. Using data from the Galileo and Voyager 1 spacecraft, a team of scientists recently produced a map that shows how radiation varies across Europa’s surface. By following this map, future missions like NASA’s Europa Clipper will be able to find the spots where biosignatures are most likely to still exist.
As many missions have revealed by studying Europa’s surface, the moon experiences periodic exchanges between the interior and the surface. If there is life in its interior ocean, then biological material could theoretically be brought to the surface where it could be studied. Since radiation from Jupiter’s magnetic field would destroy this material, knowing where it is most intense, how deep it goes, and how it could affect the interior are all important questions.
As Tom Nordheim, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained in a recent NASA press release:
“If we want to understand what’s going on at the surface of Europa and how that links to the ocean underneath, we need to understand the radiation. When we examine materials that have come up from the subsurface, what are we looking at? Does this tell us what is in the ocean, or is this what happened to the materials after they have been radiated?”
To address these question, Nordheim and his colleagues examined data from Galileo‘s flybys of Europa and electron measurements from NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft. After looking closely at the electrons blasting the moon’s surface, Nordheim and his team found that the radiation doses vary by location. The harshest radiation is concentrated in zones around the equator, and the radiation lessens closer to the poles.
“This is the first prediction of radiation levels at each point on Europa’s surface and is important information for future Europa missions,” said Paranicas. Now that scientists know where to find regions least altered by radiation, they will be able to designate areas of study for the Europa Clipper, a JPL-led mission that is expected to launch as early as 2022.
For the sake of their study, Nordheim and his team went beyond a conventional two-dimensional map to build 3D models that examined how far below the surface the radiation penetrates. To test how deep organic material would have to be buried in order to survive, Nordheim and his team tested the effect of radiation on amino acids (the basic building blocks for proteins) to figure out how Europa’s exposure to radiation would affect potential biosignatures.
The results indicate how deep scientists will need to dig or drill during a potential future Europa lander mission in order to find any biosignatures that might be preserved. In the highest-radiation zones around the equator, the depth at which biosignatures could be found ranged from 10 to 20 cm (4 to 8 inches). At the middle- and high-latitudes, closer to the poles, the depths decrease to about 1 cm (0.4 inches). As Hand indicated:
“The radiation that bombards Europa’s surface leaves a fingerprint. If we know what that fingerprint looks like, we can better understand the nature of any organics and possible biosignatures that might be detected with future missions, be they spacecraft that fly by or land on Europa.”
When the Europa Clipper mission reaches the Jovian system, the spacecraft will orbit Jupiter and conducting about 45 close flybys of Europa. It’s advanced suite of scientific instruments will include cameras, spectrometers, plasma and radar instruments which will investigate the composition of the moon’s surface, its ocean, and material that has been ejected from the surface.
“Europa Clipper’s mission team is examining possible orbit paths, and proposed routes pass over many regions of Europa that experience lower levels of radiation,” Hand said. “That’s good news for looking at potentially fresh ocean material that has not been heavily modified by the fingerprint of radiation.”
With this new radiation map, the mission team will be able to narrow the range of possible research sites. This, in turn, will increase the likelihood that the orbiter mission will be able to settle the decades-old mystery of whether or not there is life in the Jovian system.
In the 1970s, the Jupiter system was explored by a succession of robotic missions, beginning with the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions in 1972/73 and the Voyager 1 and 2 missions in 1979. In addition to other scientific objectives, these missions also captured images of Europa’s icy surface features, which gave rise to the theory that the moon had an interior ocean that could possibly harbor life.
Since then, astronomers have also found indications that there are regular exchanges between this interior ocean and the surface, which includes evidence of plume activity captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. And recently, a team of NASA scientists studied the strange features on Europa’s surface to create models that show how the interior ocean exchanges material with the surface over time.
The study, which recently appeared in the the Geophysical Research Letters under the title “Band Formation and Ocean-Surface Interaction on Europa and Ganymede“, was conducted by Samuel M. Howell and Robert T. Pappalardo – two researchers from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For their study, the team examined both Ganymede and Europa to see what the moons surface features indicated about how they changed over time.
Using the same two-dimensional numerical models that scientists have used to solve mysteries about motion in the Earth’s crust, the team focused on the linear features known as “bands” and “groove lanes” on Europa and Ganymede. The features have long been suspected to be tectonic in nature, where fresh deposits of ocean water have risen to the surface and become frozen over previously-deposited layers.
However, the connection between this band-forming processes and exchanges between the ocean and the surface has remained elusive until now. To address this, the team used their 2-D numerical models to simulate ice shell faulting and convection.Their simulations also produced a beautiful animation that tracked the movement of “fossil” ocean material, which rises from the depths, freezes into the base of the icy surface, and deforms it over time.
Whereas the white layer at the top is the surface crust of Europa, the colored band in the middle (orange and yellow) represents the stronger sections of the ice sheet. Over time, gravitational interactions with Jupiter cause the ice shell to deform, pulling the top layer of ice apart and creating faults in the upper ice. At the bottom is the softer ice (teal and blue), which begins to churn as the upper layers pull apart.
This causes water from Europa’s interior ocean, which is in contact with the softer lower layers of the icy shell (represented by white dots), to mix with the ice and slowly be transported to the surface. As they explain in their paper, the process where this “fossil” ocean material becomes trapped in Europa’s ice shell and slowly rises to the surface can take hundreds of thousands of years or more.
As they state in their study:
“We find that distinct band types form within a spectrum of extensional terrains correlated to lithosphere strength, governed by lithosphere thickness and cohesion. Furthermore, we find that smooth bands formed in weak lithosphere promote exposure of fossil ocean material at the surface.”
In this respect, once this fossil material reaches the surface, it acts as a sort of geological record, showing how the ocean was millions of years ago and not as it is today. This is certainly significant when it comes to future missions to Europa, such as NASA’s Europa Clipper mission. This spacecraft, which is expected to launch sometime in the 2020s, will be the first to study Europa exclusively.
In addition to studying the composition of Europa’s surface (which will tell us more about the composition of the ocean), the spacecraft will be studying surface features for signs of current geological activity. On top of that, the mission intends to look for key compounds in the surface ice that would indicate the possible presence of life in the interior (i.e. biosignatures).
If what this latest study indicates is true, then the ice and compounds the Europa Clipper will be examining will essentially be “fossils” from hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago. In short, any biomarkers the spacecraft detects – i.e. signs of potential life – will essentially be dated. However, this need not deter us from sending missions to Europa, for even evidence of past life would be groundbreaking, and a good indication that life still exists there today.
If anything, it makes the case for a lander that can explore Europa’s plumes, or perhaps even a Europa submarine (cryobot), all the more necessary! If there is life beneath Europa’s icy surface, we are determined to find it – provided we don’t contaminate it in the process!
For decades, scientists have believed that there could be life beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Since that time, multiple lines of evidence have emerged that suggest that it is not alone. Indeed, within the Solar System, there are many “ocean worlds” that could potentially host life, including Ceres, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, Dione, Triton, and maybe even Pluto.
But what if the elements for life as we know it are not abundant enough on these worlds? In a new study, two researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics (CfA) sought to determine if there could in fact be a scarcity of bioessential elements on ocean worlds. Their conclusions could have wide-ranging implications for the existence of life in the Solar System and beyond, not to mention our ability to study it.
In previous studies, questions on the habitability of moons and other planets have tended to focus on the existence of water. This has been true when it comes to the study of planets and moons within the Solar System, and especially true when it comes the study of extra-solar planets. When they have found new exoplanets, astronomers have paid close attention to whether or not the planet in question orbits within its star’s habitable zone.
This is key to determining whether or not the planet can support liquid water on its surface. In addition, astronomers have attempted to obtain spectra from around rocky exoplanets to determine if water loss is taking place from its atmosphere, as evidenced by the presence of hydrogen gas. Meanwhile, other studies have attempted to determine the presence of energy sources, since this is also essential to life as we know it.
In contrast, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered how the existence of life on ocean planets could be dependent on the availability of limiting nutrients (LN). For some time, there has been considerable debate as to which nutrients would be essential to extra-terrestrial life, since these elements could vary from place to place and over timescales. As Lingam told Universe Today via email:
“The mostly commonly accepted list of elements necessary for life as we know it comprises of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. In addition, certain trace metals (e.g. iron and molybdenum) may also be valuable for life as we know it, but the list of bioessential trace metals is subject to a higher degree of uncertainty and variability.”
For their purposes, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb created a model using Earth’s oceans to determine how the sources and sinks – i.e. the factors that add or deplete LN elements into oceans, respectively – could be similar to those on ocean worlds. On Earth, the sources of these nutrients include fluvial (from rivers), atmospheric and glacial sources, with energy being provided by sunlight.
Of these nutrients, they determined that the most important would be phosphorus, and examined how abundant this and other elements could be on ocean worlds, where conditions as vastly different. As Dr. Lingam explained, it is reasonable to assume that on these worlds, the potential existence of life would also come down to a balance between the net inflow (sources) and net outflow (sinks).
“If the sinks are much more dominant than the sources, it could indicate that the elements would be depleted relatively quickly. In other to estimate the magnitudes of the sources and sinks, we drew upon our knowledge of the Earth and coupled it with other basic parameters of these ocean worlds such as the pH of the ocean, the size of the world, etc. known from observations/theoretical models.”
While atmospheric sources would not be available to interior oceans, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered the contribution played by hydrothermal vents. Already, there is abundant evidence that these exist on Europa, Enceladus, and other ocean worlds. They also considered abiotic sources, which consist of minerals leached from rocks by rain on Earth, but would consist of the weathering of rocks by these moons’ interior oceans.
Ultimately, what they found was that, unlike water and energy, limiting nutrients might be in limited supply when it comes to ocean worlds in our Solar System:
“We found that, as per the assumptions in our model, phosphorus, which is one of the bioessential elements, is depleted over fast timescales (by geological standards) on ocean worlds whose oceans are neutral or alkaline in nature, and which possess hydrothermal activity (i.e. hydrothermal vent systems at the ocean floor). Hence, our work suggests that life may exist in low concentrations globally in these ocean worlds (or be present only in local patches), and may therefore not be easily detectable.”
This naturally has implications for missions destined for Europa and other moons in the outer Solar System. These include the NASA Europa Clipper mission, which is currently scheduled to launch between 2022 and 2025. Through a series of flybys of Europa, this probe will attempt to measure biomarkers in the plume activity coming from the moon’s surface.
Similar missions have been proposed for Enceladus, and NASA is also considering a “Dragonfly” mission to explore Titan’s atmosphere, surface and methane lakes. However, if Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb’s study is correct, then the chances of these missions finding any signs of life on an ocean world in the Solar System are rather slim. Nevertheless, as Lingam indicated, they still believe that such missions should be mounted.
“Although our model predicts that future space missions to these worlds might have low chances of success in terms of detecting extraterrestrial life, we believe that such missions are still worthy of being pursued,” he said. “This is because they will offer an excellent opportunity to: (i) test and/or falsify the key predictions of our model, and (ii) collect more data and improve our understanding of ocean worlds and their biogeochemical cycles.”
In addition, as Prof. Loeb indicated via email, this study was focused on “life as we know it”. If a mission to these worlds did find sources of extra-terrestrial life, then it would indicate that life can arise from conditions and elements that we are not familiar with. As such, the exploration of Europa and other ocean worlds is not only advisable, but necessary.
“Our paper shows that elements that are essential for the ‘chemistry-of-life-as-we-know-it’, such as phosphorous, are depleted in subsurface oceans,” he said. “As a result, life would be challenging in the oceans suspected to exist under the surface ice of Europa or Enceladus. If future missions confirm the depleted level of phosphorous but nevertheless find life in these oceans, then we would know of a new chemical path for life other than the one on Earth.”
In the end, scientists are forced to take the “low-hanging fruit” approach when it comes to searching for life in the Universe . Until such time that we find life beyond Earth, all of our educated guesses will be based on life as it exists here. I can’t imagine a better reason to get out there and explore the Universe than this!
Jupiter’s moon Europa continues to fascinate and amaze! In 1979, the Voyager missions provided the first indications that an interior ocean might exist beneath it’s icy surface. Between 1995 and 2003, the Galileo spaceprobe provided the most detailed information to date on Jupiter’s moons to date. This information bolstered theories about how life could exist in a warm water ocean located at the core-mantle boundary.
Even though the Galileo mission ended when the probe crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere, the spaceprobe is still providing vital information on Europa. After analyzing old data from the mission, NASA scientists have found independent evidence that Europa’s interior ocean is venting plumes of water vapor from its surface. This is good news for future mission to Europa, which will attempt to search these plumes for signs of life.
The data was collected in 1997 by Galileo during a flyby of Europa that brought it to within 200 km (124 mi) of the moon’s surface. At the time, its Magnetometer (MAG) sensor detected a brief, localized bend in Jupiter’s magnetic field, which remained unexplained until now. After running the data through new and advanced computer models, the team was able to create a simulation that showed that this was caused by interaction between the magnetic field and one of the Europa’s plumes.
This analysis confirmed ultraviolet observations made by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2012, which suggested the presence of water plumes on the moon’s surface. However, this new analysis used data collected much closer to the source, which indicated how Europa’s plumes interact with the ambient flow of plasma contained within Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.
In addition to being the lead author on this study, Jia is also the co-investigator for two instruments that will travel aboard the Europa Clipper mission – which may launch as soon as 2022 to explore the moon’s potential habitability. Jia’s and his colleagues were inspired to reexamine data from the Galileo mission thanks to Melissa McGrath, a member of the SETI Institute and also a member of the Europa Clipper science team.
During a presentation to her fellow team scientists, McGrath highlighted other Hubble observations of Europa. As Jiang explained in a recent NASA press release:
“The data were there, but we needed sophisticated modeling to make sense of the observation. One of the locations she mentioned rang a bell. Galileo actually did a flyby of that location, and it was the closest one we ever had. We realized we had to go back. We needed to see whether there was anything in the data that could tell us whether or not there was a plume.”
When they first examined the information 21 years ago, the high-resolution data obtained by the MAG instrument showed something strange. But it was thanks to the lessons provided by the Cassini mission, which explored the plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, that the team knew what to look for. This included material from the plumes which became ionized by the gas giant’s magnetosphere, leaving a characteristic blip in the magnetic field.
After reexamining the data, they found that the same characteristic bend (localized and brief) in the magnetic field was present around Europa. Jia’s team also consulted data from Galileo’sPlasma Wave Spectrometer (PWS) instrument to measure plasma waves caused by charged particles in gases around Europa’s atmosphere, which also appeared to back the theory of a plume.
This magnetometry data and plasma wave signatures were then layered into new 3D modeling developed by the team at the University of Michigan (which simulated the interactions of plasma with Solar system bodies). Last, they added the data obtained from Hubble in 2012 that suggested the dimensions of the potential plumes. The end result was a simulated plume that matched the magnetic field and plasma signatures they saw in the Galileo data.
As Robert Pappalardo, a Europa Clipper project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), indicated:
“There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa. This result makes the plumes seem to be much more real and, for me, is a tipping point. These are no longer uncertain blips on a faraway image.”
The findings are certainly good news for the Europa Clipper mission, which is expected to make the journey to Jupiter between 2022 and 2025. When this probe arrives in the Jovian system, it will establish an orbit around Jupiter and conduct rapid, low-altitude flybys of Europa. Assuming that plume activity does take place on the surface of the moon, the Europa Clipper will sample the frozen liquid and dust particles for signs of life.
“If plumes exist, and we can directly sample what’s coming from the interior of Europa, then we can more easily get at whether Europa has the ingredients for life,” Pappalardo said. “That’s what the mission is after. That’s the big picture.”
At present, the mission team is busy looking at potential orbital paths for the Europa Clipper mission. With this new research in hand, the team will choose a path that will take the spaceprobe above the plume locations so that it is in an ideal position to search them for signs of life. If all goes as planned, the Europa Clipper could be the first of several probes that finally proves that there is life beyond Earth.
And be sure to check out this video of the Europa Clipper mission, courtesy of NASA:
For decades, scientists have been speculating that life could exist in beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Thanks to more recent missions (like the Cassini spacecraft), other moons and bodies have been added to this list as well – including Titan, Enceladus, Dione, Triton, Ceres and Pluto. In all cases, it is believed that this life would exist in interior oceans, most likely around hydrorthermal vents located at the core-mantle boundary.
One problem with this theory is that in such undersea environments, life might have a hard time getting some of the key ingredients it would need to thrive. However, in a recent study – which was supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) – a team of researchers ventured that in the outer Solar System, the combination of high-radiation environments, interior oceans and hydrothermal activity could be a recipe for life.
For the sake of their study, Dr. Russell and his colleagues considered how the interaction between alkaline hydrothermal springs and sea water is often considered to be how the key building blocks for life emerged here on Earth. However, they emphasize that this process was also dependent on energy provided by our Sun. The same process could have happened on moon’s like Europa, but in a different way. As they state in their paper:
“[T]he significance of the proton and electron flux must also be appreciated, since those processes are at the root of life’s role in free energy transfer and transformation. Here, we suggest that life may have emerged on irradiated icy worlds such as Europa, in part as a result of the chemistry available within the ice shell, and that it may be sustained still, immediately beneath that shell.”
In the case of moon’s like Europa, hydrothermal springs would be responsible for churning up all the necessary energy and ingredients for organic chemistry to take place. Ionic gradients, such as oxyhydroxides and sulfides, could drive the key chemical processes – where carbon dioxide and methane are hydrogenated and oxidized, respectively – which could lead to the creation of early microbial life and nutrients.
At the same time, the heat from hydrothermal vents would push these microbes and nutrients upwards towards the icy crust. This crust is regularly bombarded by high-energy electrons created by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, a process which creates oxidants. As scientists have known for some time from surveying Europa’s crust, there is a process of exchange between the moon’s interior ocean and its surface.
As Dr. Russell and his colleagues indicate, this action would most likely involve the plume activity that has been observed on Europa’s surface, and could lead to a network of ecosystems on the underside of Europa’s icy crust:
“Models for transport of material within Europa’s ocean indicate that hydrothermal plumes could be well constrained within the ocean (primarily by the Coriolis force and thermal gradients), leading to effective delivery through the ocean to the ice-water interface. Organisms fortuitously transported from hydrothermal systems to the ice-water interface along with unspent fuels could potentially access a larger abundance of oxidants directly from the ice. Importantly, oxidants might only be available where the ice surface has been driven to the base of the ice shell.”
As Dr. Russel indicated in an interview with Astrobiology Magazine, microbes on Europa could reach densities similar to what has been observed around hydrothermal vents here on Earth, and may bolster the theory that life on Earth also emerged around such vents. “All the ingredients and free energy required for life are all focused in one place,” he said. “If we were to find life on Europa, then that would strongly support the submarine alkaline vent theory.”
This study is also significant when it comes to mounting future missions to Europa. If microbial ecosystems exist on the undersides of Europa’s icy crust, then they could be explored by robots that are able to penetrate the surface, ideally by traveling down a plume tunnel. Alternately, a lander could simply position itself near an active plume and search for signs of oxidants and microbes coming up from the interior.
Similar missions could also be mounted to Enceladus, where the presence of hydrothermal vents has already been confirmed thanks to the extensive plume activity observed around its southern polar region. Here too, a robotic tunneler could enter surface fissures and explore the interior to see if ecosystems exist on the underside of the moon’s icy crust. Or a lander could position itself near the plumes and examine what is being ejected.
Such missions would be simpler and less likely to cause contamination than robotic submarines designed to explore Europa’s deep ocean environment. But regardless of what form a future mission to Europa, Enceladus, or other such bodies takes, it is encouraging to know that any life that may exist there could be accessible. And if these missions can sniff it out, we will finally know that life in the Solar System evolved in places other than Earth!
In October of 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be launched into orbit. As part of NASA’s Next Generation Space Telescope program, the JWST will spend the coming years studying every phase of cosmic history. This will involve probing the first light of the Universe (caused by the Big Bang), the first galaxies to form, and extra-solar planets in nearby star systems.
In addition to all of that, the JWST will also be dedicated to studying our Solar System. As NASA recently announced, the telescope will use its infrared capabilities to study two “Ocean Worlds” in our Solar System – Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. In so doing, it will add to observations previously made by NASA’s Galileo and Cassini orbiters and help guide future missions to these icy moons.
The moons were chosen by scientist who helped to develop the telescope (aka. guaranteed time observers) and are therefore given the privilege of being among the first to use it. Europa and Enceladus were added to the telescope’s list of targets since one of the primary goals of the telescope is to study the origins of life in the Universe. In addition to looking for habitable exoplanets, NASA also wants to study objects within our own Solar System.
One of the main focuses will be on the plumes of water that have been observed breaking through the icy surfaces of Enceladus and Europa. Since 2005, scientists have known that Enceladus has plumes that periodically erupt from its southern polar region, spewing water and organic chemicals that replenish Saturn’s E-Ring. It has since discovered that these plumes reach all the way into the interior ocean that exists beneath Enceladus’ icy surface.
In 2012, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope detected similar plumes coming from Europa. These plumes were spotted coming from the moon’s southern hemisphere, and were estimated to reach up to 200 km (125 miles) into space. Subsequent studies indicated that these plumes were intermittent, and presumably rained water and organic materials from the interior back onto the surface.
These observations were especially intriguing since they bolstered the case for Europa and Enceladus having interior, warm-water oceans that could harbor life. These oceans are believed to be the result of geological activity in the interior that is caused by tidal flexing. Based on the evidence gathered by the Galileo and Cassini orbiters, scientists have theorized that these surface plumes are the result of these same geological processes.
The presence of this activity could also means that these moons have hydrothermal vents located at their core-mantle boundaries. On Earth, hydrothermal vents (located on the ocean floor) are believed to have played a major role in the emergence of life. As such, their existence on other bodies within the Solar System is viewed as a possible indication of extra-terrestrial life.
The effort to study these “Ocean Worlds” will be led by Geronimo Villanueva, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. As he explained in a recent NASA press statement, he and his team will be addressing certain fundamental questions:
“Are they made of water ice? Is hot water vapor being released? What is the temperature of the active regions and the emitted water? Webb telescope’s measurements will allow us to address these questions with unprecedented accuracy and precision.”
Villanueva’s team is part of a larger effort to study the Solar System, which is being led by Heidi Hammel – the executive VP of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). As she described the JWST’s “Ocean World” campaign to Universe Today via email:
“We will be seeking signatures of plume activity on these ocean worlds as well as active spots. With the near-infrared camera of NIRCAM, we will have just enough spatial resolution to distinguish general regions of the moons that could be “active” (creating plumes). We will also use spectroscopy (examining specific colors of light) to sense the presence of water, methane and several other organic species in plume material.”
For Enceladus, the team will be analyze the molecular composition of its plumes and perform a broad analysis of its surface features. Due to its small size, high-resolution of the surface will not be possible, but this should not be a problem since the Cassini orbiter already mapped much of its surface terrain. All told, Cassini has spent the past 13 years studying the Saturn system and will conclude the “Grande Finale” phase of its mission this September 15th.
These surveys, it is hoped, will find evidence of organic signatures in the plumes, such as methane, ethanol and ethane. To be fair, there are no guarantees that the JWST’s observations will coincide with plumes coming from these moons, or that the emissions will have enough organic molecules in them to be detectable. Moreover, these indicators could also be caused by geological processes.
Nevertheless, the JWST is sure to provide evidence that will allow scientists to better characterize the active regions of these moons. It is also anticipated that it will be able to pinpoint locations that will be of interest for future missions, such as NASA’s Europa Clipper mission. Consisting of an orbiter and lander, this mission – which is expected to launch sometime in the 2020s – will attempt to determine if Europa is habitable.
As Dr. Hammel explained, the study of these two “Ocean Moons” is also intended to advance our understanding about the origins of life in the Universe:
“These two ocean moons are thought to provide environments that may harbor water-based life as we know it. At this point, the issue of life elsewhere is completely unknown, though there is much speculation. JWST can move us closer to understanding these potentially habitable environments, complementing robotic spacecraft missions that are currently in development (Europa Clipper) and may be planned for the future. At the same time, JWST will be examining the far more distant potentially habitable environments of planets around other stars. These two lines of exploration – local and distant – allow us to make significant advances in the search for life elsewhere.”
Once deployed, the JWST will be the most powerful space telescope ever built, relying on eighteen segmented mirrors and a suite of instruments to study the infrared Universe. While it is not meant to replace the Hubble Space Telescope, it is in many ways the natural heir to this historic mission. And it is certainly expected to expand on many of Hubble’s greatest discoveries, not the least of which are here in the Solar System.
Be sure to check out this video on the kinds of spectrographic data the JWST will provide in the coming years, courtesy of NASA:
Between the Europa Clipper and the proposed Europa Lander, NASA has made it clear that it intends to send a mission to this icy moon of Jupiter in the coming decade. Ever since the Voyager 1 and 2 probes conducted their historic flybys of the moon in 1973 and 1974 – which offered the first indications of a warm-water ocean in the moon’s interior – scientists have been eager to peak beneath the surface and see what is there.
Towards this end, NASA has issued a grant to a team of researchers from Arizona State University to build and test a specially-designed seismometer that the lander would use to listen to Europa’s interior. Known as the Seismometer for Exploring the Subsurface of Europa (SESE), this device will help scientists determine if the interior of Europa is conducive to life.
According to the profile for the Europa Lander, this microphone would be mounted to the robotic probe. Once it reached the surface of the moon, the seismometer would begin collecting information on Europa’s subsurface environment. This would include data on its natural tides and movements within the shell, which would determine the icy surface’s thickness.
It would also determine if the surface has pockets of water – i.e. subsurface lakes – and see how often water rises to the surface. For some time, scientists have suspected that Europa’s “chaos terrain” would be the ideal place to search for evidence of life. These features, which are basically a jumbled mess of ridges, cracks, and plains, are believed to be spots where the subsurface ocean is interacting with the icy crust.
As such, any evidence of organic molecules or biological organisms would be easiest to find there. In addition, astronomers have also detected water plumes coming from Europa’s surface. These are also considered to be one of the best bets for finding evidence of life in the interior. But before they can be explored directly, determining where reservoirs of water reside beneath the ice and if they are connected to the interior ocean is paramount.
And this is where instruments like the SESE would come into play. Hongyu Yu is an exploration system engineer from ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the leader of the SESE team. As he stated in a recent article by ASU Now, “We want to hear what Europa has to tell us. And that means putting a sensitive ‘ear’ on Europa’s surface.”
While the idea of a Europa Lander is still in the concept-development stage, NASA is working to develop all the necessary components for such a mission. As such, they have provided the ASU team with a grant to develop and test their miniature seismometer, which measures no more than 10 cm (4 inches) on a side and could easily be fitted aboard a robotic lander.
More importantly, their seismometer differs from conventional designs in that it does not rely on a mass-and-spring sensor. Such a design would be ill-suited for a mission to another body in our Solar System since it needs to be positioned upright, which requires that it be carefully planted and not disturbed. What’s more, the sensor needs to be placed within a complete vacuum to ensure accurate measurements.
By using a micro-electrical system with a liquid electrolyte for a sensor, Yu and his team have created a seismometer that can operate under a wider range of conditions. “Our design avoids all these problems,” he said. “This design has a high sensitivity to a wide range of vibrations, and it can operate at any angle to the surface. And if necessary, they can hit the ground hard on landing.”
As Lenore Dai – a chemical engineer and the director of the ASU’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy – explained, the design also makes the SESE well suited for exploring extreme environments – like Europa’s icy surface. “We’re excited at the opportunity to develop electrolytes and polymers beyond their traditional temperature limits,” she said. “This project also exemplifies collaboration across disciplines.”
The SESE can also take a beating without compromising its sensor readings, which was tested when the team struck it with a sledgehammer and found that it still worked afterwards. According to seismologist Edward Garnero, who is also a member of the SESE team, this will come in handy. Landers typically have six to eight legs, he claims, which could be mated with seismometers to turn them into scientific instruments.
Having this many sensors on the lander would give scientists the ability to combine data, allowing them to overcome the issue of variable seismic vibrations recorded by each. As such, ensuring that they are rugged is a must.
“Seismometers need to connect with the solid ground to operate most effectively. If each leg carries a seismometer, these could be pushed into the surface on landing, making good contact with the ground. We can also sort out high frequency signals from longer wavelength ones. For example, small meteorites hitting the surface not too far away would produce high frequency waves, and tides of gravitational tugs from Jupiter and Europa’s neighbor moons would make long, slow waves.”
Such a device could also prove crucial to missions other “ocean worlds” within the Solar System, which include Ceres, Ganymede,Callisto,Enceladus, Titan and others. On these bodies as well, it is believed that life could very well exist in warm-water oceans that lie beneath the surface. As such, a compact, rugged seismometer that is capable of working in extreme-temperature environments would be ideal for studying their interiors.
What’s more, missions of this kind would be able to reveal where the ice sheets on these bodies are thinnest, and hence where the interior oceans are most accessible. Once that’s done, NASA and other space agencies will know exactly where to send in the probe (or possibly the robotic submarine). Though we might have to wait a few decades on that one!