Jupiter's Moon Europa Reveals Life-Sustaining Clues: NASA's Webb Telescope Detects Carbon Dioxide

Karan Kamble

Sep 22, 2023, 05:36 PM | Updated 05:36 PM IST

The Near Infrared Camera on James Webb Space Telescope captured this picture of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
(Credits: Science Credit: Geronimo Villanueva (NASA/GSFC), Samantha Trumbo (Cornell Univ.), NASA, ESA, CSA. Image Processing Credit: Geronimo Villanueva (NASA/GSFC), Alyssa Pagan (STScI))
The Near Infrared Camera on James Webb Space Telescope captured this picture of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. (Credits: Science Credit: Geronimo Villanueva (NASA/GSFC), Samantha Trumbo (Cornell Univ.), NASA, ESA, CSA. Image Processing Credit: Geronimo Villanueva (NASA/GSFC), Alyssa Pagan (STScI))
  • The James Webb Space Telescope identified carbon dioxide on the icy surface of Europa that likely originated in the moon’s subsurface ocean.
  • Jupiter's moon Europa has the potential to support life.

    Previous research has indicated the presence of a salty ocean beneath its icy crust, but the existence of the necessary chemicals for life, particularly carbon, had not been confirmed by planetary scientists.

    Now, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is making a statement on Europa.

    Astronomers have discovered carbon dioxide in a specific region on the moon's icy surface, and analysis suggests that this carbon originated from the subsurface ocean.

    It is believed to have been deposited relatively recently, ruling out external sources like meteorites.

    This finding holds significant implications for the potential habitability of Europa's ocean.

    The presence of carbon in Europa's ocean is of great interest to scientists. Carbon is an essential element for life on Earth. By understanding the chemistry of Europa's ocean, researchers hope to determine whether it can support life as we know it or if it may serve as a potential habitat for other forms of life.

    The findings are the result of independent research conducted by teams from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Cornell University. The papers are scheduled to be published in Science on 21 September. The data for the study came from Webb.

    The James Webb Space Telescope is the world's leading observatory for space science. It is dedicated to uncovering the mysteries of our solar system, exploring distant worlds around other stars, and investigating the enigmatic structures and origins of our universe.

    The carbon dioxide present on Europa was identified by both teams using data from the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) of Webb's integral field unit.

    This instrument mode provides detailed spectra of Europa's surface, allowing astronomers to locate specific chemicals.

    With a resolution of 320 x 320 kilometres, astronomers can accurately determine the distribution of carbon dioxide on Europa, which has a diameter of 3,100 kilometres.

    Despite taking only a few minutes of the observatory's time, the observations have yielded significant scientific findings.

    This demonstrates the immense potential of the Webb observatory for conducting groundbreaking research on the solar system.

    More on the Findings

    A geologically young region on Europa called Tara Regio has been found to have a high concentration of carbon dioxide.

    This suggests that there has been an exchange of material between the moon's subsurface ocean and its icy surface.

    The presence of ocean-derived salt in Tara Regio has been previously observed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

    Now, with the detection of concentrated carbon dioxide in the same area, scientists believe that this carbon likely originates from Europa's internal ocean.

    Scientists are currently discussing the extent to which Europa's ocean is connected to its surface. This question has been a driving force behind the exploration of Europa.

    Notably, the presence of carbon dioxide on Europa's surface is not stable. Therefore, scientists believe that it was supplied relatively recently on a geological timescale. This conclusion is further supported by the concentration of carbon dioxide in a region of young terrain.

    Additionally, scientists conducted a search for evidence of water vapour plumes erupting from the surface of Europa.

    Previous studies using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope had reported possible detections of plumes in 2013, 2016, and 2017, but definitive proof remained elusive.

    However, the new data from the Webb telescope did not show any signs of plume activity. It has been noted, though, that the absence of a plume detection does not completely rule out the existence of plumes.

    According to a scientist quoted in the NASA release, it is possible that these plumes are variable and only visible at specific times.

    These findings have implications for future missions, such as NASA's Europa Clipper and ESA's Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE).

    NASA has scheduled the launch of its Europa Clipper spacecraft for October 2024. The mission aims to conduct multiple close flybys of Europa in order to further investigate the potential for life-supporting conditions on the moon.

    Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.

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