The Great Lakes of Europa

In the search for life in our Solar system, several candidate worlds stand out for various reasons: Mars, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, and Jupiter’s moon Europa. A press conference and Nature paper announced today present a new model that may help provide a better understanding of the dynamics on Europa, tantalizing hints about the possibility of dynamic processes below the ice.

Jupiter's moon Europa, which is slightly smaller than Earth's Moon. The surface is mostly ice water, smooth and without major craters.

Europa is the second of Jupiter’s large moons (also known as Galilean moons, for their discoverer Galileo). As such, it is closer than the other two icy moons Ganymede and Callisto, but not as close in as volcanically-active Io. Europa consists of a relatively smooth surface of water ice, with no atmosphere to speak of. Over several decades of observation, observers have found ever-stronger evidence for a global ocean underneath Europa’s ice; since water needs some kind of protective layer to stay liquid, the ice plays somewhat the same role that Earth’s atmosphere does. Despite how common it is in our daily experience, water is strange: while most substances are more dense in their solid form, ice is less dense than liquid water, so it floats on top of oceans or in a drink glass. In this way, an ice layer can actually insulate liquid water beneath, keeping it warm; this is how arctic marine species can continue to forage throughout the winter when open water may not be available.

Obviously, the analogy breaks down after a certain point: Earth’s surface is kept warm by the combination of a warm interior and infrared sunlight, some of which is kept from reradiating into space by greenhouse gases (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and so forth). Without some sort of greenhouse effect, Earth’s water would freeze at night and a higher proportion of the surface would freeze over every winter. Too much is a bad thing as well, which of course is the problem we face with global climate change. Europa is much farther from the Sun than we are, and its subsurface water is kept liquid by a warm interior and insulated by the thick ice layer above.

The ice on Europa is fairly smooth and free of cratering (in contrast to the Moon or Mercury), which doesn’t mean it hasn’t experienced meteorite impacts, but rather that its surface has been smoothed over. Much as Earth’s weather and water erode craters away, some process or processes erase the craters on Europa, leaving it with a surface only about 60 million years old, as compared to the parts of the Moon’s surface, which are as much as 4.9 billion years old. Evidently, Europa is a dynamic place, despite being tidally-locked to Jupiter like our Moon is, keeping one face toward its host planet.

Europa is still not absolutely smooth, however: its surface is covered in fissures, grooves, and domes known as chaos terrains. These domes, which can be as high as 200 meters, are the focus of the new model proposed by B. E. Schmidt, D. D. Blankenship, G. W. Patterson, and P. M. Schenk. The researchers began by comparing certain features on Europa’s surface to ice layers in places such as Greenland and Antarctica on Earth. Below the ice in Greenland and the like, hydrothermal vents melt the ice from below, but surrounding ice prevents the liquid water from flowing away. In this way, a lake begins to grow, with ice on all sides and above. However, the difference in density stresses the ice, fracturing it into blocks that float on top of the water at a higher level than the surrounding ice. Since the cracks allow heat energy to escape, the overall temperature of the region cools off, refreezing the water. The formerly-floating blocks now make a dome – precisely how the chaos terrains appear in topographic studies of Europa’s surface. On Earth, no matter how big the ice cap, eventually the ice must come to an end in land or open ocean, but on Europa with solid ice extending all the way around the globe, the surface must crack and refreeze continually over the millennia.

The four-step process in the proposed chaos terrain formation model. a. A plume from a hydrothermal vent rises toward the thick ice layer on Europa's surface. b. The ice melts where the plume meets it, forming a lake and stressing the ice above and around it. The result is a sunken region. c. The fractures produce floating blocks of ice; the energy of the plume disperses. d. The lake refreezes, pushing the blocks of ice up and forming a highland region.
Thera Macula, a slightly sunken region on Europa that may be where chaos terrain is actively being formed. This image is false color, with the darker region in the center indicating below the average surface height, and maroon indicating slightly elevated regions.

For this model to be successful, the surface ice on Europa must be very thick: the lakes of water formed by the process described must are about 3 kilometers deep, with the formerly-floating blocks also about that thickness. The surface ice layer itself therefore must be thicker than 10 kilometers, a figure within the realms of possibility from data collected by the Galileo probe and other observations. (Other models suggest a thinner ice layer, but while these can describe the surface cracking and reforming, they currently have difficulty in handling the chaos terrains.) In addition, chemical impurities in Europa’s ice are consistent with the hydrothermal vent proposal.

For life as we know it on Earth, it isn’t sufficient to have liquid water: other processes must exist to carry nutrients (and possibly organisms themselves) through the environment. On Earth, the job is done by tides from the Moon and Sun, along with convection due to differential warming; one possible model for the origin of life places it near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, with organisms subsequently distributed by currents of air and water. Could Europa, with its global ocean churning by vents below and Jupiter’s gravity above, sustain life also below the ice?

16 responses to “The Great Lakes of Europa”

  1. […] were cast for our own Moon (who can argue with that choice?), Europa (Jupiter), Enceladus and Mimas (Saturn), and Charon (Pluto). One vote was cast for my favorite […]

  2. […] wrote about Europa two weeks ago and Io last week. When I took an informal poll on various social networks, I found enough interest […]

  3. […] be the most likely candidate for harboring life in the Solar System (other than Earth, of course). As with Europa, another potentially habitable world, Enceladus lacks a substantial atmosphere, but has a global shell of ice that protects liquid water […]

  4. […] make things even more interesting, the moons Enceladus (orbiting Saturn) and Europa (orbiting Jupiter) have a lot of liquid water and possibly the right chemical soup for life, but they’re far out […]

  5. […] for the habitable zone and hence freezes over. After all, a lot of water freezes on Earth, and if Europa and Enceladus are habitable, that stretches our range of possible conditions anyway. A planet with […]

  6. […] like the previous three moons I’ve written about (Io, Europa, and Enceladus), our Moon is tidally-locked to Earth: it presents the same face to us all the time. […]

  7. […] unlike the Moon, Io, Europa, and Enceladus, Hyperion is not tidally-locked to Saturn. The combination of Saturn’s […]

  8. […] models proposed by astronomers argue that Titan has a liquid interior, much like Enceladus or Europa. Methane lakes on Titan, as imaged by Cassini using infrared light. Kraken Mare is the dark region […]

  9. […] ever observed orbiting another planet. He later found a fourth, and today those moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto — are known as the Galilean moons in his honor. Galileo was able to do […]

  10. […] and bigger than the planet Mercury. Witness a moon with a barren icy surface like its neighbor Europa, which may hide an ocean of saltwater, similar to Enceladus. Witness a moon that orbits the largest […]

  11. […] 479 [24.11.2011] 502-5; auch Keszthelyi, ibid. 485, JHU, Univ. of TX, NASA Releases, Science@NASA, Galileo’s Pendulum 16., Planetary Society Blog, Sky & Tel., Space Today, BdW […]

  12. […] to my bias as a theoretical physicist), I love the variety of our Solar System. Comparing Dactyl to Europa to Titan to our Moon seems to show very little resemblance…yet they are all satellites, and […]

  13. […] (Of course, several moons within our own Solar System are potentially habitable: Enceladus and Europa both have liquid oceans underneath the ice. However, they’re much smaller than the exomoons […]

  14. […] impact craters and no significant mountains or valleys. In this way, it resembles Jupiter’s Europa, Saturn’s Enceladus, and other ice moons. Another way it resembles Enceladus is in its […]

  15. Websites we think you should visit…

    […]although websites we backlink to below are considerably not related to ours, we feel they are actually worth a go through, so have a look[…]……

  16. […] to produce unique forms. That in turn could tell us about life on icy worlds like Enceladus or Europa. In other words, there could be real aliens out there, though odds are they’re microbes […]

%d bloggers like this: