Jupiter's Moon Europa Has Enough Oxygen For Life

October 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.

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Source: American Astronomical Society, via Astrobio.

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5 / 5 (5) Oct 16, 2009
Nice, when are we sinking a probe into those oxygen-rich depths to see if anything is there?
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!
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.
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.
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.
3.5 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2009
Wait, can anyone explain to me how all that water got there?
Oct 16, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
4.2 / 5 (5) Oct 16, 2009
Wait, can anyone explain to me how all that water got there?

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.
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.
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.
4 / 5 (3) Oct 17, 2009
The oxygen may be there, but the gravitational forces on the human body would rule out human habitation.
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.
Oct 18, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
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 ?
Oct 18, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
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.
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...
Oct 19, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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'.
not rated yet Nov 04, 2009
A joke? I thought you were here to be enlightened, not entertained.

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