The National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA) said Tuesday that Jupiter’s moon Europa could contain necessary chemical conditions for life. Researchers suggest that the sixth coolest moon of the planet hides a deep ocean of salty liquid water. New findings were published in Geophysical Research Letters.

The scientific community has long discussed whether Europa holds elements and chemical energy in necessary amounts to develop biology. Latest research from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, analyzed possibilities of Europa to produce hydrogen and oxygen.

Jupiter and Europa. Credit: Images made with Celestia and its community resources

The study considered other processes that exempt volcanism. The interaction of those elements is a fundamental demonstration of the energy “available for life”, said NASA in a press release issued Tuesday. Quantities of hydrogen and oxygen may be similar in Earth and Europa.

In scale, hydrogen production is ten times lower than oxygen production, in both places. Results would be an example of the Europa’s complexity. Steve Vance, planetary scientists at JPL and lead author of the study, said that the rocky interior of the moon could be “much more earthlike” than expected.

“We’re studying an alien ocean using methods developed to understand the movement of energy and nutrients in Earth’s own systems. The cycling of oxygen and hydrogen in Europa’s ocean will be a major driver for Europa’s ocean chemistry and any life there, just as it is on Earth.” Vance said.

The team of researchers is interested in analyzing cycles of other chemical elements found in Europa’s sea, such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. All of them are relevant for the development of life, said NASA.

Study details and other theories: NASA will send a spacecraft to orbit Europa by 2020

Researchers have also estimated how much hydrogen produced in Europa’s ocean reacts with rocks. This process is called serpentinization. It occurs when water leaks into spaces between mineral grains “and reacts with the rock to form minerals”, which leads to a hydrogen release, explained researchers.

“The researchers considered how cracks in Europa’s seafloor likely open up over time, as the moon’s rocky interior continues to cool following its formation billions of years ago. New cracks expose fresh rock to seawater, where more hydrogen-producing reactions can take place,” said NASA in a press release.

Water can penetrate up to 15 miles into the Europa’s rocky interior. That process could be causing chemical reactions across a segment of the moon’s seafloor, said, researchers. Oxidants may be playing a major role in the chemical energy cycle of the Jupiter’s moon.

Kevin Hand, a planetary scientist at JPL and co-author of the study, said that oxidants from the ice are “like the positive terminal of a battery. At the same time, chemicals found in the Europa’s seafloor are “the negative terminal”. This process is a great motivation for investigating how Europa works, he said.

Until date, astronomers have encountered 67 moons in Jupiter. Jovian, which is described as “the most volcanically active body in the solar system”, is located nearby Europa. The latter may also have volcanic activity, said researchers.

Volcanism could create a great environment for life in the ocean of Europa. NASA is planning a mission to Jupiter, in order to investigate if the icy moon meets the necessary conditions to allow the development of life.

In 2020, NASA will send a “highly-capable, radiation-tolerant” spacecraft to orbit around Europa. It would make high-resolution photographs, to better analyze the composition of the moon’s surface and details about its interior.

Source: NASA