Discovery: Webb spacecraft identifies carbon source on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons

Jupiter’s moon Europa has long been a subject of fascination for scientists, as it’s one of the few places in our Solar System that could potentially support life. Previous research has shown that beneath its icy surface lies a salty ocean of liquid water, but until now, scientists were unsure if the necessary chemicals for life, particularly carbon, were present. However, recent observations from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope have provided evidence of carbon dioxide on the surface of Europa, indicating that it likely originated from the subsurface ocean.

The discovery of carbon dioxide on Europa’s surface is significant because carbon is an essential element for life as we know it on Earth. Geronimo Villanueva of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center explains, “Understanding the chemistry of Europa’s ocean will help us determine whether it is hostile to life as we know it, or whether it might be a good place for life.” The presence of carbon suggests that Europa’s ocean may indeed be a potentially habitable environment.

The carbon dioxide was found to be most abundant in a region called Tara Regio, which is a geologically young area known as ‘chaos terrain’. This region has experienced disruption to its surface ice, indicating possible material exchange between the subsurface ocean and the icy surface. Samantha Trumbo of Cornell University states, “We consider this implies that the carbon probably has its ultimate origin in the internal ocean.” This connection between the surface and the ocean is an important area of study for planetary scientists, as it could provide insights into the composition and potential habitability of Europa’s ocean.

The discovery of carbon dioxide on Europa was made possible by the integral field unit of Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec). This instrument mode provides detailed spectra that allow astronomers to determine the location of specific chemicals on Europa’s surface. The observations took only a few minutes but yielded significant results, demonstrating the power of the Webb telescope for studying our Solar System.

In addition to the search for carbon dioxide, researchers also looked for evidence of plumes of water vapor erupting from Europa’s surface. Previous observations from the Hubble Space Telescope had reported tentative detections of plumes, but definitive proof has been elusive. The Webb data did not show any evidence of plume activity during the observations, but the researchers acknowledge that plumes may be variable and can only be observed at certain times.

These findings have important implications for future missions to Europa, such as NASA’s Europa Clipper and ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice). Both missions aim to study Europa in detail and further investigate its potential for habitability. Guillaume Cruz-Mermy, an ESA Research Fellow, emphasizes the importance of the Juice mission, stating, “Juice will make it possible to observe the same surface over the same range of wavelengths but at a much greater spatial resolution and over a longer period of time, and therefore will further constrain the habitability condition of Europa.”

To wrap it up, the discovery of carbon dioxide on Europa’s surface provides strong evidence that the necessary chemicals for life are present in its subsurface ocean. This finding has important implications for our understanding of the potential habitability of Europa and underscores the importance of future missions to further explore this intriguing moon. With the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope and upcoming missions like Juice, scientists are poised to uncover even more secrets about Europa and the potential for extraterrestrial life in our Solar System.