Clay-like minerals found on icy crust of moon Europa

December 11, 2013
This image, using data from NASA's Galileo mission, shows the first detection of clay-like minerals on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI

(Phys.org) —A new analysis of data from NASA's Galileo mission has revealed clay-type minerals at the surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa that appear to have been delivered by a spectacular collision with an asteroid or comet. This is the first time such minerals have been detected on Europa's surface. The types of space rocks that deliver such minerals typically also often carry organic materials.

"Organic materials, which are important building blocks for life, are often found in comets and primitive asteroids," said Jim Shirley, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Shirley is giving a talk on this topic at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Friday, Dec. 13. "Finding the rocky residues of this comet crash on Europa's surface may open up a new chapter in the story of the search for life on Europa," he said.

Many scientists believe Europa is the best location in our solar system to find existing life. It has a subsurface ocean in contact with rock, an icy surface that mixes with the ocean below, salts on the surface that create an energy gradient, and a source of heat (the flexing that occurs as it gets stretched and squeezed by Jupiter's gravity). Those conditions were likely in place shortly after Europa first coalesced in our solar system.

Scientists have also long thought there must be organic materials at Europa, too, though they have yet to detect them directly. One theory is that organic material could have arrived by comet or asteroid impacts, and this new finding supports that idea.

Shirley and colleagues, funded by a NASA Outer Planets Research grant, were able to see the clay-type minerals called phyllosilicates in near-infrared images from Galileo taken in 1998. Those images are low resolution by today's standards, and Shirley's group is applying a new technique for pulling a stronger signal for these materials out of the noisy picture. The phyllosilicates appear in a broken ring about 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide, which is about 75 miles (120 kilometers) away from the center of a 20-mile-diameter (30 kilometers) central crater site.

This artist's concept shows a possible explosion resulting from a high-speed collision between a space rock and Jupiter's moon Europa. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The leading explanation for this pattern is the splash back of material ejected when a comet or asteroid hits the surface at an angle of 45 degrees or more from the vertical direction. A shallow angle would allow some of the space rock's original material to fall back to the surface. A more head-on collision would likely have vaporized it or driven that space rock's materials below the surface. It is hard to see how phyllosilicates from Europa's interior could make it to the surface, due to Europa's icy crust, which scientists think may be up to 60 miles (100 kilometers) thick in some areas.

Therefore, the best explanation is that the materials came from an asteroid or comet. If the body was an asteroid, it was likely about 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) in diameter. If the body was a comet, it was likely about 5,600 feet (1,700 meters) in diameter. It would have been nearly the same size as the comet ISON before it passed around the sun a few weeks ago.

"Understanding Europa's composition is key to deciphering its history and its potential habitability," said Bob Pappalardo of JPL, the pre-project scientist for a proposed mission to Europa. "It will take a future spacecraft mission to Europa to pin down the specifics of its chemistry and the implications for this moon hosting life."

Explore further: NASA Planning for Possible Landings on Europa

Related Stories

Mapping the chemistry needed for life at Europa

April 5, 2013

(Phys.org) —A new paper led by a NASA researcher shows that hydrogen peroxide is abundant across much of the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. The authors argue that if the peroxide on the surface of Europa mixes into the ...

If we landed on Europa, what would we want to know?

August 7, 2013

(Phys.org) —Most of what scientists know of Jupiter's moon Europa they have gleaned from a dozen or so close flybys from NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1979 and NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the mid-to-late 1990s. Even in ...

Dwarf planet Ceres: 'A game changer in the solar system'

August 29, 2013

In March of 2015, NASA's Dawn mission will arrive at the dwarf planet Ceres, the first of the smaller class of planets to be discovered and the closest to Earth. Ceres, which orbits the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars ...

Looks like a comet but feels like an asteroid? That's wild!

December 9, 2013

Comet ISON's fate has left many sad. For the public, the comet could have made for a spectacular view in December. For scientists, it would have been a chance to learn more about these mysterious bodies. But why are comets ...

Recommended for you

New Horizons data hint at underground ocean

July 30, 2015

Pluto wears its heart on its sleeve, and that has scientists gleaning intriguing new facts about its geology and climate. Recent data from NASA's New Horizons probe—which passed within 7,800 miles of the surface on July ...

Unusual red arcs spotted on icy Saturn moon Tethys

July 30, 2015

Like graffiti sprayed by an unknown artist, unexplained arc-shaped, reddish streaks are visible on the surface of Saturn's icy moon Tethys in new, enhanced-color images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

Dense star clusters shown to be binary black hole factories

July 29, 2015

The coalescence of two black holes—a very violent and exotic event—is one of the most sought-after observations of modern astronomy. But, as these mergers emit no light of any kind, finding such elusive events has been ...

First detection of lithium from an exploding star

July 29, 2015

The chemical element lithium has been found for the first time in material ejected by a nova. Observations of Nova Centauri 2013 made using telescopes at ESO's La Silla Observatory, and near Santiago in Chile, help to explain ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.