Life Beneath Europa’s Ice Might Be a Non-Starter

New models trying to infer the geology of potentially habitable moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn hint at surprisingly cool, geologically inactive worlds, the opposite of what a diverse alien ecosystem would need

[NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Imagine a spaceship finally landing on Europa and slowly drilling into the ice. After weeks of very careful progress, it pierces the moon’s frozen shell and releases a small semi-autonomous submarine connected to the probe with an umbilical to ensure constant communication and a human taking over in case of an emergency. Much of the time, it will chart a course of its own since piloting it with an hour long delay between command and response would be less than ideal. It navigates through the salty ocean, shining its light on structures never before seen by a human eye, making its way deeper and further into the alien environment to find absolutely… nothing at all.

That’s the sad scenario proposed by a team of geologists who crunched the numbers on the four leading contenders to host alien life in our outer solar system: Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and Enceladus. According to their models, looking at gravity, the weight of water and ice on the rocks underneath, and the hardness of the rocks themselves, these moons would be more or less geologically dead. Without volcanoes or sulfur vents, there would be very little in terms of nutrient exchange and therefore, very little food and fuel for an alien ecosystem more complex than microbe colonies.

Of course, these results are a pretty serious departure from the hypotheses commonly held by planetary scientists that the gravity of gas giants cause tidal kneading inside their moons, citing Io as an example. According to the researchers’ model, only Enceladus would be a promising world to look for life, as evidenced by the plumes breaking through its icy crust, spraying organic material into space. The reason why the numbers are different, they say, is because its core is likely to be porous, meaning its ocean would be heated deep inside the moon, fueling geysers and churning organic matter while effectively making the little world a ball of soggy slush.

Since these findings are so different from what’s implied by observations, the researchers aren’t in a rush to publish them are are soliciting other scientists’ opinions to make sure they have a complete picture, and lead investigator Paul Byrne grumbled about his disappointment with what the models indicate. That said, while he’s hoping to be proven wrong, we shouldn’t forget that these are alien worlds and while we’ve spent decades studying them, our knowledge came in bursts. Simply put, we might know a fair bit but far from everything and disappointing surprises may lurk under their icy surfaces and subterranean oceans.

[This article originally appeared on World of Weird Things]

Astroengine Live Show 12 Now Available in the Archives

A future mission to the Jovian moon Europa could incorporate a life-searching robotic submersible under the icy crust (NASA)
A future mission to the Jovian moon Europa could incorporate a life-searching robotic submersible under the icy crust (NASA)

If you missed the February 25th Astroengine Live, featuring my interview with Dr Richard Greenberg, discussing the release of his book “Unmasking Europa”, this is your chance to listen in. Although I wanted to occupy Dr Greenberg’s entire afternoon with questions about one of Jupiter’s most fascinating moons, I only had 20 minutes, but I think it turned out quite well in the end.

Of course, there was a lot of other subjects besides, including the regular trip to the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, and a rundown of the movers and shakers of the Carnival of Space and some random thoughts. I think this episode was better than the previous week’s show (#11) that got slammed by the proverbial cricket bat of FAIL when nothing went right. In fact, I am still trying to find the time to assemble the pieces of the audio that got chopped when the laptop, Internet, microphone, earphone, chair, rabbit, desk and brain all conspired against the “Live” part of “Astroengine Live” by taking me off the air more than once. I haven’t even listened to the playback yet, I can’t face it. However, as Jack and I discussed on Paranormal Radio a couple of weeks ago, failure comes with the territory of doing anything live. So what the hell, I’ll keep pushing onwards (and not necessarily upwards)!

Anyway, to tune into Show 12, the “Unmasking Europa” and not-so-technically-inept episode, you can use the radio widget in the top-right hand corner of the Astroengine Live page or tune into iTunes to catch it!

Astroengine Interview with Dr Richard Greenberg: “Unmasking Europa”

A future mission to the Jovian moon Europa could incorporate a life-searching robotic submersible under the icy crust (NASA)
A future mission to the Jovian moon Europa could incorporate a life-searching robotic submersible under the icy crust (NASA)

On Wednesday (Feb. 18th), NASA and ESA decided to “prioritize” a mission to Jupiter. Set to be launched in 2020 (for a 2026 arrival in the Jovian system), NASA will work on a spacecraft called the Jupiter-Europa mission and ESA will work on the Jupiter-Ganymede mission. Both probes will be launched at the same time to carry out this unprecedented planetary mission. However, this doesn’t mean a mission to Saturn will be off the cards; NASA hinted that a return trip to the ringed gas giant will also be planned in tandem (following in the footsteps of the Cassini Equinox Mission). But Jupiter comes first.

In an enlightening interview earlier today, Dr Richard Greenberg, an eminent Europa scientist, discussed this recent NASA/ESA announcement with Astroengine Live and his excitement that there will be a return mission to the Jovian system. He is an expert in celestial mechanics and worked on several NASA projects at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Dr Greenberg has also published a book called “Unmasking Europa” (of which I am very excited to receive a copy soon), detailing the science under the icy crust of the moon, where there is a tantalizing possibility life may thrive in tidally-heated sub-surface oceans.

But that’s not the best part. Dr Greenberg provides an exciting narrative about what form this Europa (European?) life may take… It’s not just microbial extraterrestrials that could survive in these environments

Be sure to listen in to my radio show, Astroengine Live on Wednesday, February 25th to hear the full recording of my conversation with Dr. Richard Greenberg.