According to a new study, Jupiter’s moon Europa may have active volcanoes located deep underwater. There is a lot of evidence that Europa has a gigantic ocean that’s located between its rocky interior and its icy crust. The new study looked closely at the possibility of there being enough heat inside of the moon to melt some of the rocky layer, ultimately helping volcanoes on the floor of the ocean to become active.
The amount of internal heat within the moon depends strongly on how much of Jupiter’s gravitational pull has on Europa. When the moon orbits around the planet, its interior flexes which creates energy and leaks out as heat. A larger amount of heat is created the more the moon’s interior is flexed.
If there is volcanic activity on Europa, they would probably be located close to the moon’s poles where there would be more heat. What’s even more interesting is that if there were active volcanoes there could be life. For example, when seawater reacts with hot magma on Earth, there is a chemical energy reaction that supports life located deep down in our oceans.
Marie Běhounková from Charles University in the Czech Republic described their study by stating, “Our findings provide additional evidence that Europa’s subsurface ocean may be an environment suitable for the emergence of life.” “Europa is one of the rare planetary bodies that might have maintained volcanic activity over billions of years, and possibly the only one beyond Earth that has large water reservoirs and a long-lived source of energy.”
Jupiter’s moon Io has hundreds of active volcanoes that spew lava, volcanic gas, and dust as high up as 250 miles (400 kilometers). This is caused by the gravitational pull from Jupiter and that’s why the researchers are wondering if the same can happen on Europa. The major difference is that Io orbits the Gas Giant much closer than Europa does.
Scientists will hopefully be able to solve the mystery in the near future when NASA’s Europa Clipper is launched in 2024. The spacecraft will conduct close flybys of the moon and will gather important data that may possibly reveal whether or not Europa has active underwater volcanoes and if life could survive there.
Europa Clipper Project Scientist Robert Pappalardo from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California reiterated this by noting, “The prospect for a hot, rocky interior and volcanoes on Europa’s seafloor increases the chance that Europa’s ocean could be a habitable environment.” “We may be able to test this with Europa Clipper’s planned gravity and compositional measurements, which is an exciting prospect.”
The study was published in Geophysical Research Letters where it can be read in full.