The Search For Life On Europa Could Center On Celestial Party-Crashers

Jupiter's moon, Europa, appears to have clay-like minerals on it (visible in blue in the false-color patch, amid red-colored water ice). The information came from new data analysis from NASA's Galileo mission, which concluded in 2003. The backdrop is a mosaic of visual-light images from Galileo's Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI

The cool thing about space missions is long after they conclude, the data can yield the most interesting information. Here’s an example: Jupiter’s moon Europa may have a ripe spot for organic materials to take root.

Scouring the data from NASA’s past Galileo mission — which ended a decade ago — scientists unveiled an area with “clay-like minerals” on it that came to be after an asteroid or comet smashed into the surface. The connection? These celestial party-crashers often carry organics with them.

“Organic materials, which are important building blocks for life, are often found in comets and primitive asteroids,” stated Jim Shirley, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Finding the rocky residues of this comet crash on Europa’s surface may open up a new chapter in the story of the search for life on Europa.”

Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa's frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)
Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa’s frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)

Europa is considered one of the best spots in our solar system to look for life, due to the ocean lurking beneath its icy surface, surface salts that can provide energy, and a source of heat as the mighty Jupiter squeezes and releases the moon like a tennis ball.

The minerals (called phyllosilicates) emerged after Shirley’s team ran a new analysis on infrared pictures snapped by Galileo in 1998, basically working to refine the signal out of the images (which are much lower quality than what we are capable of today).

After the analysis, the phyllosilicates appeared in a “broken ring”, NASA stated, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) away from a crater site. The crater itself is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) in diameter. Scientists are betting that the ring of phyllosilicates is debris (“splash back of material”, NASA says), after a celestial body struck at or around a 45 degree angle from vertical. It’s unlikely the phyllosilicates came from Europa’s ocean given the crust, which can be as thick as 60 miles (100 kilometers).

Europa Report was a 2013 film that focused on a human mission to the Jovian moon. Poster by Start Motion Pictures.
Europa Report was a 2013 film that focused on a human mission to the Jovian moon. Poster by Start Motion Pictures.

“If the body was an asteroid, it was likely about 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) in diameter. If the body was a comet, it was likely about 5,600 feet (1,700 meters) in diameter. It would have been nearly the same size as the comet ISON before it passed around the sun a few weeks ago,” NASA stated.

To be clear, nobody has found organic materials on Europa directly, and even if they were detected it would then be another feat of science to determine if they related to life or not. This does, however, lend credence to theories that life came to Earth through comets and asteroids.

Ample fodder to consider as the community waits for the European Space Agency’s JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) to get going to Europa and Jupiter upon its expected launch in 2022. The probe should arrive there in 2030.

Shirley will give a talk on this topic at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting on Friday.

Source: NASA