Jupiter's Icy Moon Europa May Be Hiding Water That Could Sustain Alien Life

jovian moon
A group of Stanford researchers may have found a potential commonality between Jupiter's moon, Europa, and Earth's own Greenland. Ice-penetrating radar from Greenland suggests this shared feature with Europa could increase the potential for life on the icy Jovian moon.

Scientists have long thought that Europa could be a prime candidate for extraterrestrial life. However, the icy shell of the Jovian moon's surface could be tens of miles thick, causing any type of exploration to prove the theory daunting. But new research proposes that the ice shell could actually be far more shallow in some places due to it being more of a dynamic system, much like that found in Greenland back here on Earth.

In a newly released research paper in Nature Communications, scientists from Stanford compare ice-penetrating radar observations from Greenland that capture the formation of a "double ridge" feature with similar features found on Europa. This commonality between the two locations hints at the possibility that Europa's icy surface could have an abundance of water pockets. If true, it would make the prospect of life and the exploration for detecting it on Europa much more feasible.

"Because it's closer to the surface, where you get interesting chemicals from space, other moons and the volcanoes of Io, there's a possibility that life has a shot if there are pockets of water in the shell," stated the study's senior author Dustin Schroeder, an Associate Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University's School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. "If the mechanism we see in Greenland is how these things happen on Europa, it suggests there's water everywhere."

The correlation that researchers found lies in the "M"-shaped crest, known as a double ridge, in Greenland and the most prominent feature on Europa. The revelation came while the researchers were working on something unrelated, and noticed that formations that streak the surface of the icy moon were very similar to the double ridges found on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet.

"We were working on something totally different related to climate change and its impact on the surface of Greenland when we saw these tiny double ridges, and we were able to see the ridges go from 'not formed' to 'formed,'" Schroeder said.

Lead study author Riley Culberg, a PhD student in electrical engineering at Stanford, explained, "In Greenland, this double ridge formed in a place where water from surface lakes and streams frequently drains into the near-surface and refreezes." He continued, "One way that similar shallow water pockets could form on Europa might be through water from the subsurface ocean being forced up into the ice shell through fractures, and that would suggest there could be a reasonable amount of exchange happening inside the ice shell."

The researchers understand that their hypothesis is just one of many, but have the distinct advantage of having observations of similar formations on Earth for comparison. The research also lends itself to the possibility of exploring the hypothesis further with the aid of instruments currently planned for exploring Europa from space, and comparing that data with the known radar signature found in Greenland.

Top Image Credit: Justice Blaine Wainwright