April 21, 2024

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Jupiter's moon Europa may have less oxygen than expected, a discovery that could hinder life

Jupiter's moon Europa may have less oxygen than expected, a discovery that could hinder life

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — New research suggests the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa contains less oxygen than thought — and that could affect what, if any, life might be lurking in the moon's underground ocean.

Even with little or no oxygen, microbes may still be roaming the ocean, and are thought to exist miles (kilometres) beneath Europa's frozen crust. As for what else, who knows, said the NASA scientist Kevin Handwho was not involved in the study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Hand said more work is needed to confirm these results, which conflict with previous telescope observations of condensed oxygen in Europa's ice, suggesting a higher concentration of oxygen.

The new study is based on data collected by NASA's Juno spacecraft during a particularly close flyby of Europa in 2022 — a distance of just 219 miles (353 kilometers).

A US-European team calculated that between 13 and 39 pounds (6 kg and 18 kg) of oxygen are produced every second on Europa's surface.

Previous estimates had a much wider spread, with up to 2,245 pounds (1,100 kilograms) of oxygen produced per second. “Unless Europe’s oxygen production was much higher in the past,” the new measurements provide “a narrower range to support habitability,” the researchers wrote.

This oxygen is formed with hydrogen when Jupiter's radiation blasts Europa's global envelope of frozen water.

Lead author James Salai of Princeton University said Juno's flyby was the first time a spacecraft had “directly sniffed” Europa's ocean. “We can't wait to peek behind the curtain of its complex ecology,” he said in an email.

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Although this is “a much narrower scope than we previously thought, there is still a lot we can learn,” Szalay said.

It is not known how much oxygen escapes into the moon's atmosphere, how much remains in the ice, and how much may find its way into the subterranean sea.

NASA plans to launch Europa Clipper this fall. The spacecraft will make dozens of flybys of Europa — roughly the size of our Moon — as it orbits the gas giant planet.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Science and Education Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.