The problematic part in this search is getting a probe down to that ocean since Europa is encased in a dense ice shell perhaps 25 km thick. Planetary scientists have bandied about concepts of complicated drills to get a submarine-like craft down to the ocean.
New research published in the journal Nature gives us hope to found life just below the icy surface. Microbes or other traces of life on Europa might be found just below the icy surface even though the moon is blasted by radiation from Jupiter that can break down organic materials.
Even in the harshest radiation zones on Europa, it would be sufficient to simply dig to 10-20 centimetres, to reach material that has not been heavily affected by radiation. There we might find evidence of life. At the more irradiated equatorial regions, however, the protected depth would increase to several tens of centimetres.
lead author Tom Nordheim from Caltech and his colleagues modelled the effect of energetic particles impacting Europa’s surface and then calculated estimates from laboratory data on how quickly radiation destroys amino acids. They found that that at mid-to-high latitudes, Europa’s ice provides enough protection — acting as a shield against the radiation — that amino acids could persist at detectable levels just 1–3 cm below the surface, even over a 10-million-year timescale.
The environment around Jupiter is intense with radiation, as charged particles are trapped in the giant planet’s magnetosphere and form powerful radiation belts. These belts are similar to Earth’s Van Allen belts but are many millions of times stronger.
The icy moon is covered with cracks and fissures, and observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo mission have shown that some of these cracks had separated. Dark, icy material appeared to have flowed into the opened gaps. In 2016, Hubble also found evidence of plums of water vapour being expelled from the ice surface of Europa.
Kevin Hand from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who also participated in the research, has long been studying Europa. In a 2013 paper co-authored with planetary science Mike Brown, Hand concluded that the surface of Europa might “taste” a lot like ocean water here on Earth — infused with salts, such as magnesium sulfates. If there is a chemical exchange between the ocean and surface, it would make for a rich chemical environment.
Meteoritic impacts over a 10-million-year timescale would expose and mix materials from shallower depths that had been exposed to more intense irradiation with material from greater depths exposed to less irradiation, lessening the effect of the ice’s protection.
But the ice and minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures at Europa’s surface provide a shield. Laboratory studies conducted by Nordheim and his colleagues found that amino acids contained within water ice at low temperatures display “substantially reduced destruction rates,” according to their paper.
Finding Life on Jupiter’s Moon Europa may be as Easy as Scratching the Surface. But we have to look closer to find evidence.
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