Jupiter's Moon Europa Has Enough Oxygen For Life

Oct 16, 2009
A model of Europa's interior, including a global ocean. If a 100 kilometer-deep ocean existed below the Europan ice shell, it would be 10 times deeper than any ocean on Earth and would contain twice as much water as Earth's oceans and rivers combined. Credit: NASA/JPL

New research suggests that there is plenty of oxygen available in the subsurface ocean of Europa to support oxygen-based metabolic processes for life similar to that on Earth. In fact, there may be enough oxygen to support complex, animal-like organisms with greater oxygen demands than microorganisms.

The global ocean on ’s moon Europa contains about twice the of all the Earth’s oceans combined. New research suggests that there may be plenty of available in that ocean to support life, a hundred times more oxygen than previously estimated.

The chances for life there have been uncertain, because Europa’s ocean lies beneath several miles of ice, which separates it from the production of oxygen at the surface by energetic charged particles (similar to ). Without oxygen, life could conceivably exist at hot springs in the ocean floor using exotic metabolic chemistries, based on sulfur or the production of methane. However, it is not certain whether the ocean floor actually would provide the conditions for such life.

Therefore a key question has been whether enough oxygen reaches the ocean to support the oxygen-based that is most familiar to us. An answer comes from considering the young age of Europa’s surface. Its geology and the paucity of impact craters suggests that the top of the ice is continually reformed such that the current surface is only about 50 million years old, roughly 1% of the age of the solar system.

Richard Greenberg of the University of Arizona has considered three generic resurfacing processes: gradually laying fresh material on the surface; opening cracks which fill with fresh ice from below; and disrupting patches of surface in place and replacing them with fresh material. Using estimates for the production of oxidizers at the surface, he finds that the delivery rate into the ocean is so fast that the oxygen concentration could exceed that of the Earth’s oceans in only a few million years. Greenberg presented his findings at the 41st meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences now under way in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.

Greenberg says that the concentrations of oxygen would be great enough to support not only microorganisms, but also “macrofauna”, that is, more complex animal-like organisms which have greater oxygen demands. The continual supply of oxygen could support roughly 3 billion kilograms of macrofauna, assuming similar oxygen demands to terrestrial fish.

The good news for the question of the origin of life is that there would be a delay of a couple of billion years before the first surface oxygen reached the ocean. Without that delay, the first pre-biotic chemistry and the first primitive organic structures would be disrupted by oxidation. Oxidation is a hazard unless organisms have evolved protection from its damaging effects. A similar delay in the production of oxygen on Earth was probably essential for allowing life to get started here.

Richard Greenberg is the author of the recent book “Unmasking Europa: The Search for Life on Jupiter’s Moon”, which offers a comprehensive picture of Europa for the general reader.


Join PhysOrg.com on Facebook!
Follow PhysOrg.com on Twitter!
Source: American Astronomical Society, via Astrobio.

Explore further: Researchers using drones to better understand environmental phenomena

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Toxic to aliens -- but key to health of planet

Jun 18, 2008

Scientists at the University of Leicester are using an ingredient found in common shampoos to investigate how the oxygen content of the oceans has changed over geologically recent time.

Study offers new recipe for oxygen on icy moons

Mar 27, 2006

Some may be surprised to learn that bleach-blondes and the enabler of life elsewhere in our solar system have something in common. And, no, it's not intelligence. It is, in fact, hydrogen peroxide. But how that hydrogen peroxide ...

The rise of oxygen caused Earth's earliest ice age

May 07, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Geologists may have uncovered the answer to an age-old question - an ice-age-old question, that is. It appears that Earth's earliest ice ages may have been due to the rise of oxygen in Earth's ...

Nitrous oxide from ocean microbes

Dec 10, 2007

A large amount of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide is produced by bacteria in the oxygen poor parts of the ocean using nitrites, Dr Mark Trimmer told journalists at a Science Media Centre press briefing today.

Aquatic life dying in Gulf mystery

Sep 01, 2005

Researchers are looking for answers as aquatic life dies in the "dead zone" moving through the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.

Recommended for you

Melting during cooling period

5 hours ago

(Phys.org) —A University of Maine research team says stratification of the North Atlantic Ocean contributed to summer warming and glacial melting in Scotland during the period recognized for abrupt cooling ...

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

8 hours ago

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...

New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins

10 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed ...

User comments : 42

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ealex
5 / 5 (5) Oct 16, 2009
Nice, when are we sinking a probe into those oxygen-rich depths to see if anything is there?
Mercury_01
5 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2009
Yeah, I really like the thermonuclear ice melting pod idea. Put a mini ALVIN in there and lets do this thing!
Birthmark
2.3 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2009
That's interesting, but you know with all the opposition to space exploration :/ but that doesn't stall it anyways luckily.
Milou
2.3 / 5 (15) Oct 16, 2009
It is comforting to know that we can destroy this planet taping it's resources. It first starts innocently with curiosity about life. Then corporations come over with the goal "we need to supply our people". Then we end up invading what ever is on the way. Talk about alien invasions! We (us humans) fit this scenario very well.

Let's see were we have been thus far? Space junk orbiting earth. We even had Bozo the clown up there!!! Space junk all over the moon some especially slamming on it (in the name of research, of course). Mars has a few rovers, crash sites, and orbiting spy. We constantly have our large telescopes viewing anything that we can get our hands on.

Personally, I love space exploration. It is the aftermath I am afraid of. Science has good intentions. It is governments and corporation that are not trustworthy.
ealex
3.7 / 5 (10) Oct 16, 2009
Agreed, we find new ways to fail every day.

Hopefully we'll grow out of it, we're just a couple of thousands of years old for the most part. On the whole we're insignificant at the Universe's scale, with our pollution and our hate and guns and wars and it will probably take millions of years of survival until we can become barely significant to become noticeable if anyone is out there watching.

My great sadness is that we won't get to see any of it, but it's up to each of us to support the wiser path, while we're here, the only thing we can really do.
AstroNut
3.5 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2009
Wait, can anyone explain to me how all that water got there?
CyberRat
4.2 / 5 (5) Oct 16, 2009
Wait, can anyone explain to me how all that water got there?


http://en.wikiped...universe
Truth
3.7 / 5 (9) Oct 16, 2009
As far as pollution, war, greed and hate exhibited by mankind is concerned, it is an almost 100 percent probability that every single sentient race on other planets have exhibited or still exhibit the exact same traits. Their own evolution out of the primordial chemical muck mandates aggression as a mechanism for survival, eventually leading to advanced technology, just the way we are doing now. It's not the ideal way to be, but it seems to be one of the many tools of evolution. If there is life on Europa, it will exhibit the same traits.
SDMike
2.7 / 5 (15) Oct 16, 2009
Of course we could stop exploiting the Earth's resources and let the endangered species take it over. They kill and eat each other but that's OK because THEY aren't human. Somehow the libs think that humans are the source of all things evil in the universe. Evil being define by the libs, of course.
Digi
5 / 5 (5) Oct 17, 2009
I am sure it will be exploration over exploitation - for the foreseeable future at least. I can't wait for the first bespoke investigation of Europa with perhaps a core drilling/heating lander to sample the ice.
finitesolutions
not rated yet Oct 17, 2009
There are plenty of good quality unemployed people that can build the next exploratory craft to Europa satellite. Some very high tech jobs can be created. I do not C how low tech jobs will advance a nation. It is time to all emigrate from this planet.
MarkmBha
4 / 5 (3) Oct 17, 2009
The oxygen may be there, but the gravitational forces on the human body would rule out human habitation.
ShotmanMaslo
3.3 / 5 (6) Oct 17, 2009
The oxygen may be there, but the gravitational forces on the human body would rule out human habitation.


Europas gravity is 0.134 Earths gravity. This may rule out long-term habitation, but stays shorter than two years are safe, with some exercise.
rgw
5 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2009
Europa sub ice is covered by 60 miles of water. Besides aggressive instincts and luck. How does and intelligent Europan start a fire to create a technological civilization...Under water or ice ?
woodland_spirit
5 / 5 (2) Oct 19, 2009
life on Europa? hmmm ... how did Clarke and Kubrick know, more tan 40 years ago?


Either they had a lucky guess (which is what I think) or the information was carried via interplanetary bacteria. Bacteria carry information, extremely unlikely, but possible.
mechengineer
3 / 5 (2) Oct 19, 2009
Of course we could stop exploiting the Earth's resources and let the endangered species take it over. They kill and eat each other but that's OK because THEY aren't human. Somehow the libs think that humans are the source of all things evil in the universe. Evil being define by the libs, of course.

I would like to point out that dogs did not detonate the first nuclear bomb, nor did carrier pigeons turn Dresden into a post-apocalyptic wasteland...
nuge
not rated yet Oct 20, 2009
My suggestion to crash it into Mars was not 'pointless verbiage'. I think that would be cool. Raise the Martian temperature, add some mass and much more water. Its win win win. What's the deal with these PhysOrg Support folks?
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Oct 20, 2009
My suggestion to crash it into Mars was not 'pointless verbiage'. I think that would be cool. Raise the Martian temperature, add some mass and much more water. Its win win win. What's the deal with these PhysOrg Support folks?

It's not science because, in the foreseeable future, it's not feasible. It's pure fiction.
nuge
5 / 5 (1) Oct 20, 2009
I didn't say I thought it was possible right now. May we speculate on future possibilities on this site or is that not allowed? Seems a bit limited for a science website.
otto1923
not rated yet Oct 22, 2009
There are plenty of good quality unemployed people that can build the next exploratory craft to Europa satellite.
They will all be busy rebuilding west coast cities destroyed by the 'Big One'.

Eventually all the bodies in this system will be dismantled to build an enormous rotating Ring around the sun, to provide a million times the surface area of old earth. But alas, the civilization which builds it will collapse. You gotta put things in the proper perspective. Useable resources will be used by someone sooner or later. Best to do it first ourselves.
otto1923
5 / 5 (1) Oct 22, 2009
I would like to point out that dogs
were entirely fabricated by humans.

Why do people-haters visit this site anyways? It only features the many wonderful things people are inventing or discovering or fixing every day. Must depress them.
otto1923
5 / 5 (1) Oct 22, 2009
One more thing
It's pure fiction.
Its speculation. Its postulation. Its what asimov did when he imagined a communications satellite. Its how either the Lofstrom loop or space fountain was conceived- by people in discussion groups discussing, rehashing, cross-referencing ideas, etc.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Oct 23, 2009
Its how either the Lofstrom loop or space fountain was conceived- by people in discussion groups discussing, rehashing, cross-referencing ideas, etc.

Here is PhysOrg. Elsewhere we sing Leibowitz's canticles.
otto1923
not rated yet Oct 23, 2009
@franjo
And who died and made you der Kaiser sir? I was describing the kind of post one might find here, and rightly so IMHO, from time to time or even most of the time. I think people of all ages and persuasions come here for some inspiration and enjoy expressing that from time to time. Whats wrong with that in your estimation?
Sonhouse
not rated yet Oct 23, 2009
It is comforting to know that we can destroy this planet taping it's resources. It first starts innocently with curiosity about life. Then corporations come over with the goal "we need to supply our people". Then we end up invading what ever is on the way. Talk about alien invasions! We (us humans) fit this scenario very well.

Let's see were we have been thus far? Space junk orbiting earth. We even had Bozo the clown up there!!! Space junk all over the moon some especially slamming on it (in the name of research, of course). Mars has a few rovers, crash sites, and orbiting spy. We constantly have our large telescopes viewing anything that we can get our hands on.

Personally, I love space exploration. It is the aftermath I am afraid of. Science has good intentions. It is governments and corporation that are not trustworthy.


Report from the 2175 Earth Resources Counsel:
With little water left on Earth we are left with only one resource: Massive mining of Europa's Ocean.
Sonhouse
not rated yet Oct 23, 2009
One more thing
It's pure fiction.
Its speculation. Its postulation. Its what asimov did when he imagined a communications satellite. Its how either the Lofstrom loop or space fountain was conceived- by people in discussion groups discussing, rehashing, cross-referencing ideas, etc.

Er, make that Arthur C Clarke as the one who originally thought of the communications satellite.
Azimov just thought of everything else:)
otto1923
not rated yet Oct 24, 2009
Sonhouse
thanks for backup. Asimov was robot ethics of course. For water we would drop a few small comets into orbit
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Oct 24, 2009
And who died and made you der Kaiser sir?

Fortunately nobody made me der kaiser, lieber herr otto1923. I'm just expressing my humble opinion.
I was describing the kind of post one might find here, and rightly so IMHO, from time to time or even most of the time. I think people of all ages and persuasions come here for some inspiration and enjoy expressing that from time to time. Whats wrong with that in your estimation?

Nothing at all. But I'm here for enlightenment, not for entertainment.
otto1923
4 / 5 (1) Oct 25, 2009
Danke sehr. :-)
Terraforming has been well explored already by legitimate scientists as I'm sure you know. We're already malforming this one. Enlightment/entertainment- what's the difference? One w/o the other is annoying. Planetary engineering is Kool. And Inevitable. Once we set automated bot factories on mars moons, asteroids, comets, who knows what might be accomplished? A million rovers. A million balloons in the Jovian atmosphere, thousands of additional factories...
nuge
not rated yet Oct 27, 2009
Scientists complain that the public are not interested in science. So on a website surely designed for the sole purpose of informing the public about science, why is it that any comments that are not strictly scientific are hounded down and deleted? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Oct 27, 2009
So on a website surely designed for the sole purpose of informing the public about science, why is it that any comments that are not strictly scientific are hounded down and deleted?

Science is held in high esteem by most people. Unfortunately there are way too many out there who'd love to exploit this for their non-scientific ends.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Oct 27, 2009
Terraforming has been well explored already by legitimate scientists as I'm sure you know.

IMHO these guys are engineers, not scientists.

Enlightment/entertainment- what's the difference?

Enlightenment is in the brain, entertainment in the belly.

One w/o the other is annoying.

My brain needs different food from my belly. I could do without my belly (if it were possible) but not without my brain.
nuge
3 / 5 (2) Oct 27, 2009
All I'm saying is, I think people should be allowed to express their interest in the ideas presented in these articles, and show their enthusiasm, without themselves being experts in the field. Some of the best ideas come from creative speculation, not from empirical reasoning. How is it not enlightening to hear how someone was inspired by something, and what thoughts it provoked in them? Dogmatically rejecting the opinions of all but the elite is contrary to the spirit of science.
nuge
5 / 5 (1) Oct 27, 2009
IMHO these guys are engineers, not scientists.


By the way, science is pointless without engineering. It's one thing to know how the world works, but what difference does it make if you don't use that knowledge for anything?
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Oct 28, 2009
IMHO these guys are engineers, not scientists.


By the way, science is pointless without engineering. It's one thing to know how the world works, but what difference does it make if you don't use that knowledge for anything?

I didn't mean to introduce a ranking. You are completely right, we need both of them. Here's my personal definition: The engineer is he who gets everything working but doesn't understand why it's working. The scientist is he who does understand everything but doesn't get it working.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Oct 28, 2009
All I'm saying is, I think people should be allowed to express their interest in the ideas presented in these articles, and show their enthusiasm, without themselves being experts in the field. Some of the best ideas come from creative speculation, not from empirical reasoning. How is it not enlightening to hear how someone was inspired by something, and what thoughts it provoked in them? Dogmatically rejecting the opinions of all but the elite is contrary to the spirit of science.

Yep.
But there is "weed". And while a certain amount doesn't matter we can't afford to let it grow dominant until it suffocates the crop.
nuge
4.5 / 5 (2) Oct 28, 2009
I didn't mean to introduce a ranking. You are completely right, we need both of them. Here's my personal definition: The engineer is he who gets everything working but doesn't understand why it's working. The scientist is he who does understand everything but doesn't get it working.


You're a twit. Scientists don't understand everything (no-one does), they merely propose the simplest possible explanations for things until these explanations are disproven and more complicated ones have to be proposed. That's what science actually is. Nowhere does it claim to be the be all and end all of understanding. And "engineers don't understand why things work"? How on earth would they 'make things work' if they knew nothing about them? IMHO your comments are 'weed'.
otto1923
not rated yet Oct 28, 2009
@frajo
(off-topic post):
I think nuge has you in a corner. This site is pretty fair and there are obvious needs to stay on topic and attract knowledgable professionals to discussions. But I think I'm hearing 'i know science when I see it' and 'science is in the eye of the beholder' in your argument which are personal, not empirical, viewpoints. Anyways it's a good site keep up the excellent work. Everybody takes a hit once in awhile so what? Bring it on!
otto1923
not rated yet Oct 28, 2009
Europa sub ice is covered by 60 miles of water. Besides aggressive instincts and luck. How does and intelligent Europan start a fire to create a technological civilization...Under water or ice ?
I have often wondered how octopi could do this, using volcanic heat to smelt, teamwork to create and turn screws, harnessing larger animals. I usually end up with them on rafts. I suppose europans would have been burrowing into the ice at some point which could give them a chance. There must be gas pockets, hot spots?
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2009
@frajo
(off-topic post):
I think nuge has you in a corner.

Why? Of course, he's is right. He (and you) only didn't get the joke. Wanna read some more?
nuge
not rated yet Nov 04, 2009
A joke? I thought you were here to be enlightened, not entertained.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2009
A joke? I thought you were here to be enlightened, not entertained.

True. But Herr otto1923 told me he'd be enlightened by entertainment. And like a true engineer, I put away maths/logics and simply had a try.

More news stories

Melting during cooling period

(Phys.org) —A University of Maine research team says stratification of the North Atlantic Ocean contributed to summer warming and glacial melting in Scotland during the period recognized for abrupt cooling ...

Progress in the fight against quantum dissipation

(Phys.org) —Scientists at Yale have confirmed a 50-year-old, previously untested theoretical prediction in physics and improved the energy storage time of a quantum switch by several orders of magnitude. ...