Ocean below Jupiter’s moon Europa’s icy shell may have heat, energy to sustain life
Washington – Researchers have shown that the subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa may have deep currents and circulation patterns with heat and energy transfers capable of sustaining biological life.
Scientists believe Europa is one of the planetary bodies in our solar system most likely to have conditions that could sustain life, an idea reinforced by magnetometer readings from the Galileo spacecraft detecting signs of a salty, global ocean below the moon’s icy shell.
Regions of disrupted ice on the surface, known as chaos terrains, are one of Europa’s most prominent features.
In a numerical model of Europa’s ocean circulation, lead author Krista Soderlund’s team found that warm rising ocean currents near the equator and subsiding currents in latitudes closer to the poles could account for the location of chaos terrains and other features of Europa’s surface.
Such a pattern coupled with regionally more vigorous turbulence intensifies heat transfer near the equator, which could help initiate upwelling ice pulses that create features such as the chaos terrains.
Soderlund said that the processes they are modeling on Europa remind them of processes on Earth, where a similar process has been observed in the patterns creating marine ice in parts of Antarctica.
The current patterns modeled for Europa contrast with the patterns observed on Jupiter and Saturn, where bands of storms form because of the way their atmospheres rotate. The physics of Europa’s ocean appear to have more in common with the oceans of the “ice giants” Uranus and Neptune, which show signs of three-dimensional convection.
The study has been published in journal Nature Geosciences.