Europa – Jupiter’s fabulous frozen moon – may have an interior warm enough to create volcanoes on the seabed that NASA is hoping its next Europa Clipper mission will eventually detect. If so, they would find themselves incredibly beneath a hidden world ocean wedged between Europe’s icy global crust and the rocky interior of the moon.
However, the authors of a recent article in the journal Geophysical research letters Detail new modeling that shows volcanic activity may have occurred on Europe’s seabed in the recent past – and may still be happening, NASA says. And the idea is that the Europa Clipper, an interplanetary orbiter slated for launch in 2024, will head into the outer solar system and come close enough to Europa’s surface to collect measurements that could confirm these new computer models. submarines.
We have found life deep in the Earth’s oceans, in hydrothermal systems where water circulates through hot rock where it is heated and absorbs chemicals from the rock layer, Cynthia Phillips, planetary geologist and project scientist Europa at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told me. “If seabed hydrothermal systems exist in Europe, they could be sources of thermal and chemical energy that could support a biosphere,” she says.
Even so, the key to making Europe’s rock mantle warm enough to melt lies in Jupiter’s massive gravitational pull on its moons, NASA says. As Europa circles the gas giant, the interior of the icy moon flexes, forcing energy inside the moon, which then oozes out as heat, the space agency explains. This new paper models in detail how the rocky part of Europe can flex and heat under the pull of Jupiter’s gravity and shows where the heat dissipates and how it melts this rocky mantle, increasing the likelihood that Europa may have volcanoes on its seabed, notes NASA.
Europe’s ice crust is estimated to vary from a few kilometers to several tens of kilometers in thickness. Yet the polar regions of the moon are where the authors of the article believe the heat produced by the friction of the tides is perhaps most important. If so, they write that the release of heat from the seabed in these polar regions should also be accompanied by the release of chemical compounds that could impact the moon’s ocean chemistry.
Once the Europa Clipper spacecraft arrives, its E-THEMIS thermal imager will be able to detect temperature anomalies on Europa that could correspond to underground volcanic activity. The spacecraft will also take gravity measurements, which could detect gravity anomalies and provide clues to potential volcanic activity.
“Europe is one of the few planetary bodies that could have maintained volcanic activity for billions of years, and perhaps the only one beyond Earth that has large reservoirs of water and a source of ‘sustainable energy,’ explains Marie Běhounková, senior author from Charles University in Czech Republic said in a statement.
Underwater volcanoes, if present, could power hydrothermal systems like those that fuel life deep in Earth’s oceans, NASA says. On Earth, when seawater comes in contact with hot magma, the interaction results in chemical energy, the agency notes. And it is the chemical energy of these hydrothermal systems, rather than that of sunlight, that helps support life deep in our own oceans, says NASA.
But it is this global layer of ice that helps make Europa such a unique planetary body.
In Europe, the surface ice cover is probably at least 10 kilometers thick, says Phillips. On Earth, even the oldest sea ice is only a few feet thick, she says. So any ecosystem in Europe would be completely isolated from the Sun and would have to use other sources of energy to sustain itself, such as thermal or chemical energy, says Phillips.