Scientists Say Europa Contains “External Signature Of A Vast Internal Salty Ocean”

Posted: Oct 29 2015, 9:43am CDT | by , Updated: Oct 29 2015, 6:07pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

A study titled “Spatially Resolved Spectroscopy of Europa: The Distinct Spectrum of Large-scale Chaos” and published in the Astronomical Journal by researchers from the California Institute of Technology suggests that Jupiter’s moon Europa has large deposits of saltwater beneath its icy exterior; and that this water might indicate signs of microbial life.

The study was carried out by Patrick Fischer, a Caltech graduate student; Mike Brown, A Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor and Professor of Planetary Astronomy; and Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist and planetary scientist at JPL.

"We have known for a long time that Europa's fresh icy surface, which is covered with cracks and ridges and transform faults, is the external signature of a vast internal salty ocean," Brown said.

The scientists are focusing on “chaos terrain” because these regions of Europa are broken vastness of plates which have shifted positions and refrozen to present a chaotic appearance. The researchers believe water from beneath may have seeped to the surface through these cracks and left deposits which must be analyzed to gain more insights into the chemistry of the region.

"Directly sampling Europa's ocean represents a major technological challenge and is likely far in the future," Fischer said. "But if we can sample deposits left behind in the chaos areas, it could reveal much about the composition and dynamics of the ocean below."

It is estimated that the underground salty ocean should be as deep as 100 kilometers; and Brown thinks this could tell scientists about the chemical activity at the edge of the rocky core and the ocean.

The scientists examined a 2011 data from the W.M Keck telescope in Hawaii using the OSIRIS spectrograph in order to better analyze any deposits made by water rising from below to the surface. A spectrograph breaks down light into different parts before measuring their frequencies. The chemical element of each component can absorb light, and this at certain wavelengths can be used to analyze the surface mineral deposits by observing sunlight reflected from them.

"The minerals we expected to find on Europa have very distinct spectral fingerprints in infrared light," Fischer said. "Combine this with the extraordinary abilities of the adaptive optics in the Keck telescope, and you have a very powerful tool."

The OSIRIS technology was able to isolate spectra in 1,600 spots on the surface of Jupiter’s moon, and Fischer devised a cool tool to differentiate spectral signatures. This was coupled with readings of Europa’s moon recorded by NASA’s Galileo mission in the 1990s.

"Unique identification has been difficult," Brown explained. "We think we might be looking at salts left over after a large amount of ocean water flowed out onto the surface and then evaporated away. They may be like the large salt flats in the desert regions of the world, in which the chemical composition of the salt reflects whatever materials were dissolved in the water before it evaporated."

The team of scientists believes similar deposits on Europa would give an insight into the water below its surface, and they think they only need to catalogue the chemistry of the area to find water and possible organic compounds which might be indicative of life in space.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/52" rel="author">Charles I. Omedo</a>
Charles is covering the latest discoveries in science and health as well as new developments in technology. He is the Chief Editor or Intel-News.




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