Jupiter’s moon, Europa, has long been a point of interest in our solar system. Europa is surrounded by an ocean made of water that is thought to be about 60 miles deep with an ice crust on the surface that is anywhere from a mile or two thick to 10 to 20 miles thick, depending on which theory you subscribe to. Studying this ocean has long been a dream of many scientists, mostly because of the idea that where you find liquid water, you may very well find life – as water is a key component in all life on Earth. Recently researchers have found that there may be a chemical exchange between the ocean and the surface, showing that the water from the subsurface ocean does work its way to the surface and vice-versa. Exchanges between the surface and the ocean would be an important way of exchanging energy and material to enrich Europa’s oceans to make them more hospitable for life.
Io shoots large amounts of sulfur into Jupiter’s orbit which finds its way to the side of Europa facing away from Jupiter via Jupiter’s magnetic field lines. This shows that there is not a large amount of sulphur in the Europan ocean but there is magnesium. Potassium, sodium, and chlorine had also been detected in the ice of Europa and this shows a remarkable similarity between the oceans of Earth and Europa. Magnesium chloride, potassium chloride (Potash), and sodium chloride (Common Salt) are all found in Earth's oceans and within living organisms on Earth are thought to be key to certain biological processes. Finding the Magnesium Sulfide on only one side of the surface is indicative that sulfur is not a key component of Europa’s oceans, which is good because many sulphur compounds do not react very well with most biological organisms on Earth. It also shows that the other chemicals are most likely coming from the ocean and not from space, which also shows that the water is making its way through the ice to the surface.
Being able to detect what is in the oceans of Europa is essential to understanding Europa. A mission to Europa would have to be able to sample and analyze this water for chemical composition and for life itself. Getting to that ocean through a few miles, or tens of miles of ice, is not an easy task but this new information shows that we may be able to just go there and scrape the surface to obtain samples from the deep ocean. This could actually save billions of dollars in the design and implementation of a robot that would either drill or melt its way down to the ocean. Knowing the chemical composition of Europa’s oceans also gives us an idea what can and what can’t live there. This latest information shows that Europa’s ocean is far more like that of Earth than ever before and that may be a good sign for finding types of life like ours in Europa’s ocean. We may be a long way from uncovering all of the mysteries of Jupiter’s moons but we are getting better at solving them in a time where funding for interplanetary probes is running dry.