NASA first proposed a dedicated mission to study Jupiter’s moon Europa way back in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that the Europa Clipper mission got funding. The agency now hopes to launch this spacecraft in 2024, and a new study could point the way to volcanic activity. This model shows that tidal heating from Jupiter should be enough to keep the interior of Europa toasty, and that could mean it’s capable of supporting life below the ice sheet.
Europa captured everyone’s imagination when Voyager 2 swung past the moon on its way out of the solar system. For the first time, scientists were able to see the long cracks crisscrossing the surface. These rifts in the surface are called lineae, and there are few visible craters around them. That has led most planetary researchers to conclude that a vast subsurface reservoir of water leaks out through the cracks to constantly remodel the surface. To know for sure, we’ll need to go there, and Europa Clipper is the first step.
Jupiter’s moon Io is peppered with volcanoes even though it’s too small to retain internal heat. The moon remains geologically active due to tidal heating. As it orbits Jupiter, the planet’s enormous gravity tugs on it and causes the interior to heat up. However, Europa is farther away from Jupiter. We’ve detected vapor plumes from Europa, so there will be something to see under the surface. But where should we be looking?
The study, led by Marie Běhounková of Charles University in the Czech Republic, models how the rocky part of Europa may flex and crack due to the constant pull of Jupiter’s gravity. This points to the regions of Europa that are more likely to have volcanic activity, and indeed, supports the idea that there is volcanic activity to detect in the first place. According to the analysis, Europa is most likely to have active underwater volcanoes near to poles. That’s where the flexing and warping would be most intense.
Finding a liquid ocean under Europa’s ice would be incredible, but the stakes get higher if there are active volcanoes. Hot magma interacting with seawater on Earth produces chemical compounds that are vital to life as we know it. The organisms clustered around hydrothermal vents on our planet can look profoundly alien. Scientists can only speculate about truly alien life that might exist around similar vents on Europa, but now we have a better idea where to look.
NASA says Europa Clipper will be able to put these predictions to the test when it reaches Jupiter in 2030. The current plan is to launch Europa Clipper in 2024, but NASA initially wanted to use the Space Launch System. That rocket might not be ready in time, so it might have to resort to using the SpaceX Falcon Heavy or another commercial vehicle.
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