Hidden oceans beneath Jupiter’s icy moon Europa contain basic table salt just like Earth’s seas, study finds
- Scientists have discovered traces of sodium chloride on Europa’s surface
- Flybys from the Hubble Telescope confirmed table salt exists in ‘chaos regions’
- Chaos regions are geologically young and contain material from oceans below
- Findings show that Europa’s oceans may have more in common with Earth’s seas
A subterranean ocean thought to be beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa could be strikingly similar to the seas here on Earth.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope spotted the presence of sodium chloride, also known as simple table salt, on the icy planet’s surface.
Sodium chloride is also what makes the Earth’s oceans so salty, leading scientists to believe there may be more similarities between the two bodies of water that are yet to be discovered.
A subterranean ocean thought to be beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa could be strikingly similar to the seas here on Earth, as scientists found traces of table salt
The findings are detailed in a new study led by researchers from the California Institute of Technology and published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
While the oceans are beneath Europa’s surface, the exterior is basically made up of frozen seawater.
This means that below its icy exterior, there’s likely to be a vast salty sea containing large amounts of sodium chloride.
Scientists confirmed that it was sodium chloride on Europa’s surface by obtaining four observations of the moon from the Hubble Space Telescope from May to August in 2017.
Researchers scanned Europa’s surface with the Hubble, as well as infrared light, which revealed traces of sodium chloride.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (pictured) spotted the presence of sodium chloride, also known as simple table salt, on the icy planet’s surface
They compared these observations with previous data gathered by the Near Infrared Mapping Spectrometer on the Galileo spacecraft in 1998, which indicated that the moon may contain table salt on its surface.
However, that study didn’t indicate whether the surface salt had originated from Europa’s subterranean oceans.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT EUROPA?
Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon.
Europa orbits Jupiter every 3.5 days and is tidally locked – just like Earth’s Moon – so that the same side of Europa faces Jupiter at all times.
It is thought to have an iron core, a rocky mantle and a surface ocean of salty water, like Earth.
Unlike on Earth, however, this ocean is deep enough to cover the whole surface of Europa, and being far from the sun, the ocean surface is globally frozen over.
Many experts believe the hidden ocean surrounding Europa, warmed by powerful tidal forces caused by Jupiter’s gravity, may have conditions favourable for life.
Nasa scientists are on the verge of exploring Jupiter’s ocean moon Europa for signs of alien life.
Europa is our best shot of finding biological life in the solar system, researchers say.
The space agency is priming two probes, including one that will land on its surface, to explore the distant moon in detail within the next decade, the agency says.
This time around, scientists detected sodium chloride in Europa’s ‘chaos’ regions, or areas on its surface that are geologically young and contain material absorbed from the oceans below.
‘Since the icy shell is geologically young and features abundant evidence of past geologic activity, it was suspected that whatever salts exist on the surface may derive from the ocean below,’ NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.
Prior to this study, scientists believed that magnesium sulfate, commonly used in bath salts, was what made up Europa’s oceans.
With these findings, the researchers say they’re confident that sodium chloride is present in Europa’s oceans, but it’s unclear whether it dominates the subterranean waters, or if sulfate salts reside there as well.
In order to find out, experts will likely have to find out if Europa features seafloor hydrothermal systems akin to oceans on Earth and in Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
These venting systems are a vital component to how chloride enters the water, according to Discover Magazine.
Regardless, the researchers said the Hubble Telescope’s findings are an important step in uncovering more information about Europa’s mysterious oceans.
‘We do need to revisit our understanding of Europa’s surface composition, as well as its internal geochemistry,’ Samantha Trumbo, the study’s lead author, told Space.com.
‘If this sodium chloride is really reflective of the internal composition, then [Europa’s ocean] might be more Earth-like than we used to think.’