NASA/JPL-Caltech

ScienceShot: Elements Rising Up From Europa's Ocean

Sid is a freelance science journalist.

Material dissolved in the ocean of Jupiter's moon, Europa, which lies beneath an icy shell estimated to be about 100 kilometers thick, nevertheless reaches the surface, new research suggests. Astronomers have long been puzzled about the two faces of Europa: Its leading hemisphere, the one that perpetually faces forward as it orbits Jupiter, has a yellowish appearance, whereas its trailing hemisphere is splattered and streaked with a reddish material. Sensors on the Galileo probe, which orbited the planet from 1995 until 2003, looked at Europa in relatively wide wavelength bands, so researchers couldn't use that data to identify specific chemicals tingeing the moon's surface. But now, using Earth-based telescopes that can observe the moon in wavelength bands approximately one-fortieth as wide as Galileo's, researchers have spotted the spectral signature of magnesium sulfate on Europa's trailing hemisphere, they report online today in The Astronomical Journal. A complex set of processes result in magnesium sulfate tainting only one hemisphere, the scientists explain. A variety of dissolved elements—including sodium and potassium, which show up in trace amounts in Europa's atmosphere, and magnesium, which does not—make their way from Europa's ocean to the moon's surface via geysers or through cracks in the ice (depicted in cross section, above). Sulfur, spewed from volcanos on the jovian moon Io (small yellow orb at top center) and then ionized by Jupiter's magnetic field, slams into Europa's surface at speeds of about 300,000 kilometers per hour. (The sulfur predominantly strikes the trailing hemisphere of Europa because Jupiter [upper right] and its magnetic field rotate more quickly than Europa orbits the planet.) Once the elements are brought together, the chemical reactions resulting in magnesium sulfate proceed. The new findings are exciting because they suggest that material that accumulates on Europa's surface might be making its way down into the ocean, where sulfur-bearing compounds could serve as nutrients for microbial life if any exists there.

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