Jupiter's moon Europa might not have a core, hindering chances of habitability

'Europa is not just a wet, baby Earth. It is its own special world, full of mysteries to unravel,' said Joseph O'Rourke, assistant professor at ASU.
Chris Young
Mosaic of Europa's surface.

Jupiter's ocean moon Europa may not have a fully formed core, according to a new study.

The icy ocean moon is the target of a number of upcoming missions, including NASA's Europa Clipper, which aims to determine whether it is habitable.

In the new study, a team of scientists outlined their analysis of the evolution of Europa, Jupiter's fourth-largest moon. Their findings suggest that Europa did not have a core for the majority of its existence.

Analyzing Jupiter's fourth-largest moon

After NASA's Galileo spacecraft reached Jupiter in 1995, an analysis of Europa's gravity field showed that the moon's interior is likely made up of a metallic core and a rocky mantle, much like Earth. Scientists assumed that Europa's layers were clearly defined around the same time that it formed.

Now, in their new study, a team of scientists from Arizona State University (ASU) outlines how they simulated the evolution of Europa from its earliest period. They found that Europa may have a metamorphic origin for its ocean, meaning the ocean water hidden beneath its icy exterior may have come from hydrated rocks in the moon's mantle.

"The origin of Europa's ocean is important because the moon's potential to support life ultimately depends on the chemical ingredients and physical conditions during the ocean formation process," Kevin Trinh, a graduate associate at ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, explained in a press statement.

Do new findings hinder habitability?

In Trinh and colleagues' simulations, they found that low temperatures due to Europa's large distance from the Sun could mean that the moon is still currently separating into separate layers. Europa's metallic core may have started forming a billion years after the moon was born, or it may not exist at all. The scientists also suggest that tidal churning from Jupiter's gravitational pull could have melted the core away before it could fully form.

"For most worlds in the solar system, we tend to think of their internal structure as being set shortly after they finish forming," said Carver Bierson, a postdoctoral research scholar at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. "This work is very exciting because it reframes Europa as a world whose interior has been slowly evolving over its whole lifetime. This opens doors for future research to understand how these changes might be observed in the Europa we see today."

The research suggests there is likely low hydrothermal activity and seafloor volcanism on Europa's seafloor, which reduces the probability that Europa is habitable. However, the ASU scientists said that a lot more research is required and the door is most definitely not shut on the potential for alien life on the icy ocean world.

"Europa is not just a wet, baby Earth. It is its own special world, full of mysteries to unravel," added Joseph O'Rourke, assistant professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Thanks to missions including NASA's Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency's (ESA's) JUICE spacecraft, we may soon learn more about its mysterious ways.

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