Life on Europa Would be Protected by Just a Few Centimeters of Ice

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.

Artist’s impression of water bubbling up from Europa’s interior ocean and breaching the surface ice. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

The study which describes their findings recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature under the title “Preservation of potential biosignatures in the shallow subsurface of Europa“. The study was led by Nordheim and was co-authored by Kevin Hand (also with the JPL) and Chris Paranicas from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Artist’s concept of a Europa Clipper mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

“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.”

Artist’s impression of a water vapor plume on Europa. Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SwRI

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.

Further Reading: NASA, Nature

NASA Simulation Shows How Europa’s “Fossil Ocean” Rises to the Surface Over Time

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.

Images from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft show the intricate detail of Europa’s icy surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Artist’s concept of a Europa Clipper mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

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).

Artist’s impression of a hypothetical ocean cryobot (a robot capable of penetrating water ice) in Europa. Credit: NASA

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!

Further Reading: NASA, Geophysical Research Letters

New Research Raises Hopes for Finding Life on Mars, Pluto and Icy Moons

Since the 1970s, when the Voyager probes captured images of Europa’s icy surface, scientists have suspected that life could exist in interior oceans of moons in the outer Solar System. Since then, other evidence has emerged that has bolstered this theory, ranging from icy plumes on Europa and Enceladus, interior models of hydrothermal activity, and even the groundbreaking discovery of complex organic molecules in Enceladus’ plumes.

However, in some locations in the outer Solar System, conditions are very cold and water is only able to exist in liquid form because of the presence of toxic antifreeze chemicals. However, according to a new study by an international team of researchers, it is possible that bacteria could survive in these briny environments. This is good news for those hoping to find evidence of life in extreme environments of the Solar System.

The study which details their findings, titled “Enhanced Microbial Survivability in Subzero Brines“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Astrobiology. The study was conducted by Jacob Heinz from the Center of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Technical University of Berlin (TUB), and included members from Tufts University, Imperial College London, and Washington State University.

Based on new evidence from Jupiter’s moon Europa, astronomers hypothesize that chloride salts bubble up from the icy moon’s global liquid ocean and reach the frozen surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Basically, on bodies like Ceres, Callisto, Triton, and Pluto – which are either far from the Sun or do not have interior heating mechanisms – interior oceans are believed to exist because of the presence of certain chemicals and salts (such as ammonia). These “antifreeze” compounds ensure that their oceans have lower freezing points, but create an environment that would be too cold and toxic to life as we know it.

For the sake of their study, the team sought to determine if microbes could indeed survive in these environments by conducting tests with Planococcus halocryophilus, a bacteria found in the Arctic permafrost. They then subjected this bacteria to solutions of sodium, magnesium and calcium chloride as well as perchlorate, a chemical compound that was found by the Phoenix lander on Mars.

They then subjected the solutions to temperatures ranging from +25°C to -30°C through multiple freeze and thaw cycles. What they found was that the bacteria’s survival rates depended on the solution and temperatures involved. For instance, bacteria suspended in chloride-containing (saline) samples had better chances of survival compared to those in perchlorate-containing samples – though survival rates increased the more the temperatures were lowered.

For instance, the team found that bacteria in a sodium chloride (NaCl) solution died within two weeks at room temperature. But when temperatures were lowered to 4 °C (39 °F), survivability began to increase and almost all the bacteria survived by the time temperatures reached -15 °C (5 °F). Meanwhile, bacteria in the magnesium and calcium-chloride solutions had high survival rates at –30 °C (-22 °F).

Artist rendering showing an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface. Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

The results also varied for the three saline solvents depending on the temperature. Bacteria in calcium chloride (CaCl2) had significantly lower survival rates than those in sodium chloride (NaCl) and magnesium chloride (MgCl2)between 4 and 25 °C (39 and 77 °F), but lower temperatures boosted survival in all three.  The survival rates in perchlorate solution were far lower than in other solutions.

However, this was generally in solutions where perchlorate constituted 50% of the mass of the total solution (which was necessary for the water to remain liquid at lower temperatures), which would be significantly toxic. At concentrations of 10%, bacteria was still able to grow. This is semi-good news for Mars, where the soil contains less than one weight percent of perchlorate.

However, Heinz also pointed out that salt concentrations in soil are different than those in a solution. Still, this could be still be good news where Mars is concerned, since temperatures and precipitation levels there are very similar to parts of Earth – the Atacama Desert and parts of Antarctica. The fact that bacteria have can survive such environments on Earth indicates they could survive on Mars too.

In general, the research indicated that colder temperatures boost microbial survivability, but this depends on the type of microbe and the composition of the chemical solution. As Heinz told Astrobiology Magazine:

“[A]ll reactions, including those that kill cells, are slower at lower temperatures, but bacterial survivability didn’t increase much at lower temperatures in the perchlorate solution, whereas lower temperatures in calcium chloride solutions yielded a marked increase in survivability.”

This full-circle view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the terrain surrounding the location called “Troy,” where Spirit became embedded in soft soil during the spring of 2009. Credit: NASA/JPL

The team also found that bacteria did better in saltier solutions when it came to freezing and thawing cycles. In the end, the results indicate that survivability all comes down to a careful balance. Whereas lower concentrations of chemical salts meant that bacteria could survive and even grow, the temperatures at which water would remain in a liquid state would be reduced. It also indicated that salty solutions improve bacteria survival rates when it comes to freezing and thawing cycles.

Of course, the team emphasized that just because bacteria can subsist in certain conditions doesn’t mean they will thrive there. As Theresa Fisher, a PhD student at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and a co-author on the study, explained:

“Survival versus growth is a really important distinction, but life still manages to surprise us. Some bacteria can not only survive in low temperatures, but require them to metabolize and thrive. We should try to be unbiased in assuming what’s necessary for an organism to thrive, not just survive.”  

As such, Heinz and his colleagues are currently working on another study to determine how different concentrations of salts across different temperatures affect bacterial propagation. In the meantime, this study and other like it are able to provide some unique insight into the possibilities for extraterrestrial life by placing constraints on the kinds of conditions that they can survive and grow in.

These studies also allow help when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life, since knowing where life can exist allows us to focus our search efforts. In the coming years, missions to Europa, Enceladus, Titan and other locations in the Solar System will be looking for biosignatures that indicate the presence of life on or within these bodies. Knowing that life can survive in cold, briny environments opens up additional possibilities.

Further Reading: Astrobiology Magazine, Astrobiology

There was Evidence for Europa’s Geysers Hiding in Plain Sight in Old Spacecraft Data From 1997

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 study which describes their findings, titled “Evidence of a plume on Europa from Galileo magnetic and plasma wave signatures“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. The study was led by Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist from the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan, and included members from UCLA and the University of Iowa.

Artist’s concept of the Galileo space probe passing through the Jupiter system. Credit: NASA

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.”

Artist’s impression of a water vapor plume on Europa. Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

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’s Plasma 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.” 

Artist’s concept of a Europa Clipper mission, which will study Europa in 2022-2025 to search for signs of life. Credit: NASA/JPL

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:

Further Reading: NASA, Nature

NASA Says James Webb Telescope will Study Solar System’s “Ocean Worlds”

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.

Artist rendering showing an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface. Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

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.”

Possible spectroscopy results from one of Europa’s water plumes. This is an example of the data the Webb telescope could return. Credit: NASA-GSFC/SVS/Hubble Space Telescope/Stefanie Milam/Geronimo Villanueva

To study Europa, Villanueva and his colleagues will take high-resolution imagery of Europa using the JWST’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam). These will be used to study the moon’s surface and search for hot spots that are indicative of plumes and geological activity. Once a plume is located, the team will determine its composition using Webb’s near-infrared spectrograph (NIRSpec) and mid-infrared instrument (MIRI).

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:

Further Reading: NASA

Europa Lander Could Carry a Microphone and “Listen” to the Ice to Find Out What’s Underneath

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.

Image of Europa’s ice shell, taken by the Galileo spacecraft, of fractured “chaos terrain”. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Europa’s “Great Lake.” Scientists speculate many more exist throughout the shallow regions of the moon’s icy shell. Credit: Britney Schmidt/Dead Pixel FX/Univ. of Texas at Austin.

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.

Artist’s concept of chloride salts bubbling up from Europa’s liquid ocean and reaching the frozen surface.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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!

Further Reading: ASU Now

Europa’s Venting Global Ocean May Be Easier To Reach Than We Thought

Last week, on Tuesday, September 20th, NASA announced that they had made some interesting findings about Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. These were based on images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, the details of which would be released on the following week. Needless to say, since then, the scientific community and general public have been waiting with baited breath.

Earlier today (September 26th) NASA put an end to the waiting and announced the Hubble findings during a NASA Live conference. According to the NASA panel, which was made up of members of the research team, this latest Europa-observing mission revealed evidence of plumes of saline water emanating from Europa’s surface. If true, this would mean that the moon’s subsurface ocean would be more accessible than previously thought.

Using Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) instrument, the team conducted observations of Jupiter and Europa in the ultra-violet spectrum over the course of 15 months. During that time, Europa passed in front of Jupiter (occulted the gas giant) on 10 separate occasions.

And on three of these occasions, the team saw what appeared to be plumes of water erupting from the surface. These plumes were estimated to be reaching up to 200 km (125 miles) from the southern region of Europa before (presumably) raining back onto the surface, depositing water ice and material from the interior.

The purpose of the observation was to examine Europa’s possible extended atmosphere (aka. exosphere). The method the team employed was similar to the one used to detect atmospheres around extra-solar planets. As William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore (and the team leader), explained in a NASA press release:

“The atmosphere of an extrasolar planet blocks some of the starlight that is behind it. If there is a thin atmosphere around Europa, it has the potential to block some of the light of Jupiter, and we could see it as a silhouette. And so we were looking for absorption features around the limb of Europa as it transited the smooth face of Jupiter.”

When they looked at Europa using this same technique, they noted that small patches on the surface were dark, indicating the absorption of UV light. This corresponded to previous work done by Lorenz Roth (of the Southwest Research Institute) and his team of researchers in 2012. At this time, they detected evidence of water vapor coming from Europa’s southern polar region.

Europa transit illustration. Europa orbits Jupiter every 3 and a half days, and on every orbit it passes in front of Jupiter, raising the possibility of plumes being seen as silhouettes absorbing the background light of Jupiter. Credits: A. Field (STScI)
Europa transit illustration. Europa orbits Jupiter every 3 and a half days, and on every orbit it passes in front of Jupiter, raising the possibility of plumes being seen as silhouettes absorbing the background light of Jupiter. Credits: A. Field (STScI)

As they indicated in a paper detailing their results – titled “Transient Water Vapor at Europa’s South Pole” – Roth’s team also relied on UV observations made using the Hubble telescope. Noting a statistically coincident amount of hydrogen and oxygen emissions, they concluded that this was the result of ejected water vapor being broken apart by Jupiter’s radiation (a process known as radiolysis).

Though their methods differed, Sparks and his research team also found evidence of these apparent water plumes, and in the same place no less. Based on the latest information from STIS, most of the apparent plumes are located in the moon’s southern polar region while another appears to be located in the equatorial region.

“When we calculate in a completely different way the amount of material that would be needed to create these absorption features, it’s pretty similar to what Roth and his team found,” Sparks said. “The estimates for the mass are similar, the estimates for the height of the plumes are similar. The latitude of two of the plume candidates we see corresponds to their earlier work.”

Another interesting conclusion to come from this and the 2012 study is the likelihood that these water plumes are intermittent. Basically, Europa is tidally-locked world, which means the same side is always being presented to us when it transits Jupiter. This occus once every 3.5 days, thus giving astronomers and planetary scientists plenty of viewing opportunities.

 This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Hubble data were taken on January 26, 2014. Credit: Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center
This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Hubble data were taken on January 26, 2014. Credit: Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

But the fact that plumes have been observed at some points and not others would seem to indicate that they are periodic. In addition, Roth’s team attempted to spot one of the plume’s observed by Sparks and his colleagues a week after they reported it. However, they were unable to locate this supposed water source. As such, it would appear that the plumes, if they do exist, are short-lived.

These findings are immensely significant for two reasons. On the one hand, they are further evidence that a warm-water, saline ocean exists beneath Europa’s icy surface. On the other, they indicate that any future mission to Europa would be able to access this salt-water ocean with greater ease.

Ever since the Galileo spacecraft conducted a flyby of the Jovian moon, scientists have believed that an interior ocean is lying beneath Europa’s icy surface – one that has between two and three times as much water as all of Earth’s oceans combined. However, estimates of the ice’s thickness range from it being between 10 to 30 km (6–19 mi) thick – with a ductile “warm ice” layer that increases its total thickness to as much as 100 km (60 mi).

Knowing the water periodically reaches the surface through fissures in the ice would mean that any future mission (which would likely include a submarine) would not have to drill so deep. And considering that Europa’s interior ocean is considered to be one of our best bets for finding extra-terrestrial life, knowing that the ocean is accessible is certainly exciting news.

A comparison of 2014 transit and 2012 Europa aurora observations. The raw transit image, left, has dark fingers or patches of possible absorption in the same place that a different team (led by Lorenz Roth) found auroral emission from hydrogen and oxygen, the dissociation products of water. Credits: NASA, ESA, W. Sparks (left image) L. Roth (right image)
A comparison of 2014 transit and 2012 Europa aurora observations. Credits: NASA, ESA, W. Sparks (left image) L. Roth (right image)

And the news is certainly causing its fair share of excitement for the people who are currently developing NASA’s proposed Mission to Europa, which is scheduled to launch sometime in the 2020s. As Dr. Cynthia B. Phillips, a Staff Scientist and the Science Communications Lead for the Europa Project, told Universe Today via email:

“This new discovery, using Hubble Space Telescope data, is an intriguing data point that helps lend support to the idea that there are active plumes on Europa today. While not an absolute confirmation, the new Sparks et al. result, in combination with previous observations by Roth et al. (also using HST but with a different technique), is consistent with the presence of intermittent plumes ejecting water vapor from the Southern Hemisphere of Europa. Such observations are difficult to perform from Earth, however, even with Hubble, and thus these results remain inconclusive.

“Confirming the presence or absence of plumes on Europa, as well as investigating many other mysteries of this icy ocean world, will require a dedicated spacecraft in the Jupiter system.   NASA currently plans to send a multiple-flyby spacecraft to Europa, which would make many close passes by Europa in the next decade. The spacecraft’s powerful suite of scientific instruments will be able to study Europa’s surface and subsurface in unprecedented detail, and if plumes do exist, it will be able to observe them directly and even potentially measure their composition.  Until the Europa spacecraft is in place, however, Earth-based observations such as the new Hubble Space Telescope results will remain our best technique to observe Jupiter’s mysterious moon.”

Naturally, Sparks was clear that this latest information was not entirely conclusive. While he believes that the results were statistically significant, and that there were no indications of artifacts in the data, he also emphasized that observations conducted in the UV wavelength are tricky. Therefore, more evidence is needed before anything can be said definitively.

In the future, it is hoped that future observation will help to confirm the existence of water plumes, and how these could have helped create Europa’s “chaos terrain”. Future missions, like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled to launch in 2018) could help confirm plume activity by observing the moon in infrared wavelengths.

As Paul Hertz, the director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said:

“Hubble’s unique capabilities enabled it to capture these plumes, once again demonstrating Hubble’s ability to make observations it was never designed to make. This observation opens up a world of possibilities, and we look forward to future missions — such as the James Webb Space Telescope — to follow up on this exciting discovery.”

Other team members include Britney Schmidt, an assistant professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta; and Jennifer Wiseman, senior Hubble project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Their work will be published in the Sept. 29 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

And be sure to enjoy this video by NASA about this exciting find:

Further Reading: NASA Live