Life on Europa?

Places to look for life in our Solar System

Places in the Solar System where life might exist (except the Moon and Ceres, which are just shown for scale).

Credit: D. W. Hoard (2018), assembled form public domain NASA images

The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa looms large in this image from NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s.

Credit (image and some text): NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute [link]

Europa is a world of water

How much of Earth is made of water? Very little, actually. Although oceans of water cover about 70 percent of Earth's surface, these oceans are shallow compared to the Earth's radius. This illustration shows what would happen if all of the water on or near the surface of the Earth (pictured at right) was bunched up into a ball. The radius of this ball would be only about 700 kilometers, less than half the radius of Earth's Moon, but slightly larger than Saturn's moon Rhea which, like many moons in our outer Solar System, is mostly water ice. How even this much water came to be on the Earth and whether any significant amount is still trapped far beneath Earth's surface remain topics of research.

How much of Jupiter's moon Europa (pictured at left) is made of water? A lot, actually. Based on the Galileo probe data acquired during its exploration of the Jovian system from 1995 to 2003, Europa possesses a deep, global ocean of liquid water beneath a layer of surface ice. The subsurface ocean plus ice layer could range from 80 to 170 kilometers in average depth. Using an estimate of 100 kilometers depth, if all the water on Europa were gathered into a ball it would have a radius of 877 kilometers. With a volume 2-3 times the volume of water in Earth's oceans, the global ocean on Europa holds out a tantalizing destination in the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

Credit (image and some text): Kevin Hand (JPL/Caltech), Jack Cook (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Howard Perlman (USGS); Astronomy Picture of the Day on 24 May 2012 [link]

Orbiting Jupiter (more than 5 AU from the Sun), Europa is located far outside of the Sun's Habitable Zone (the region within which orbiting bodies could have liquid water on their surface).

Habitable zone of the Sun with the planets of the inner Solar System.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle [link]

At Europa's distance from the Sun, water should be frozen as ice.

How does Europa have a global liquid water ocean?

These artist's drawings depict a proposed model of the subsurface structure of the Jovian moon, Europa. Geologic features on the surface, imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft might be explained by the existence of a layer of liquid water with a possible depth of more than 100 kilometers. If a 100 kilometer (60 mile) deep ocean existed below a 15 kilometer (10 mile) thick Europan ice crust, it would be 10 times deeper than any ocean on Earth and would contain twice as much water as Earth's oceans and rivers combined. Unlike the Earth, magnesium sulfate might be a major salt component of Europa's water, while the Earth's oceans are salty due to sodium chloride (common salt).

Credit (image and some text): NASA/JPL/SETI Institute [link]

Tidal flexing by Jupiter is the source of Europa's internal heat, which melts the moon's icy crust from the bottom up.

The same process makes Jupiter's moon Io the most volcanically active body in the Solar System (Io is closer to Jupiter, so gets flexed more).

This illustration of Europa (foreground), Jupiter (right) and Jupiter's moon Io (middle) is an artist's concept. Water from Europa's subsurface global ocean bubbles up to the surface through vents (cryovolcanoes) and cracks (chaotic terrain - see below).

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech [link]

Energy (heat) and nutrients (chemicals) are delivered to the deep layers of Europa's subsurface ocean by seafloor volcanoes.

This artist's concept illustrates the internal structure of Europa. The moon has an icy crust supported by a subsurface ocean. Below that is a rocky layer surrounding an iron core.

Credit (image and some text): NASA/JPL [link]

The ocean to surface connection

Reddish spots and shallow pits pepper the enigmatic ridged surface of Europa in this image from NASA's Galileo spacecraft. The spots and pits visible in this region of Europa's northern hemisphere are each about 10 kilometers (6 miles) across. The dark spots are called "lenticulae," the Latin term for freckles. Ruddy ice erupting onto the surface to form the lenticulae may hold clues to the composition of the ocean and to whether it could support life.

Credit (image and some text): NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Colorado [link]

Different colors due to chemical compounds from the subsurface ocean?

This colorized image of Europa is a product of clear-filter grayscale data from one orbit of NASA's Galileo spacecraft, combined with lower-resolution color data taken on a different orbit. The blue-white terrains indicate relatively pure water ice, whereas the reddish areas contain water ice mixed with hydrated salts, potentially magnesium sulfate or sulfuric acid. The reddish material is associated with the broad band in the center of the image, as well as some of the narrower bands, ridges, and disrupted chaos-type features. It is possible that these surface features may have communicated with the global subsurface ocean layer during or after their formation.

Credit (image and some text): NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute [link]

Chemical processing of seawater rich in organic molecules by surface radiation

Radiation (charged particles) from the Sun and Jupiter, and even sulfur ejected from volcanoes on the neighboring moon Io, can alter or destroy molecules on Europa's surface. Material from Europa's ocean that ends up on the surface of Europa will be bombarded by radiation. The radiation breaks apart molecules and changes the chemical composition of the material, possibly destroying any biosignatures, or chemical signs that could imply the presence of life. To interpret what future space missions find on the surface of Europa we must first understand how material has been modified by radiation.

Credit (image and some text): NASA/JPL-Caltech [link]

Evidence of the ocean to surface connection

A transit image obtained as Europa passed in front of Jupiter in 2014 (left) has dark fingers or patches of possible absorption (inside the green oval) in the same place that auroral emission from hydrogen and oxygen, the dissociation products of water, was found in 2012. This likely indicates an active cryovolcano at that location on Europa's surface.

Credit (image and some text): NASA, ESA, W. Sparks (left image), L. Roth (right image) [link]

Cracks and a hot spot at plume location

These images of the surface of Europa, from NASA's Galileo spacecraft, focus on a "region of interest" on the icy moon. The image at left traces the location of the erupting plumes of material observed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2014 and again in 2016 (see above). The plumes are located inside the area surrounded by the green oval. The green oval also corresponds to a warm region on Europa's surface, as identified by the temperature map at right, which is also based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft. The warmest area is colored bright red. The dark circle just below center in both images is an impact crater and is not thought to be related to the warm spot or the plume activity.

Credit (image and some text): NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center [link]

Life requires more than just water, but not much more…

  • A liquid water lake 800 meters below the Antarctic ice on Earth is teeming with microbial life.

  • “…a chemosynthetically driven ecosystem inhabited by a diverse assemblage of bacteria...”

  • “…life has survived there without energy from the Sun for the past 120,000 years, and possibly for as long as 1 million years.”

Electron microscope image showing a metabolically active microbial cell attached to a larger sediment particle from sub-glacial Lake Whillans, which lies beneath approximately 800 meters of ice on the lower portion of the Whillans Ice Stream (WIS) in West Antarctica.

Credit (image and some text): Trista Vick-Majors, from Christner et al. (2014) [link]

The sub-surface ocean on Europa is probably not completely isolated, nor even as isolated as antarctic sub-glacial lakes on Earth.

Fractures and other “mixing sites” in the surface ice crust could allow:

  • Exchange and modification of chemicals between ocean and surface, allowing a flow of nutrients.

  • Utilization of energy from the Sun.

  • Development of a multi-layered ecology of plants and/or animals.

Europa's biosphere could include lifeforms adapted to niches provided by the cracks in its icy crust. Although radiation from Jupiter's magnetosphere would be harmful to life on Europa's surface down to a depth of a few centimeters, sunlight could sustain photosynthetic organisms (i.e., "plants") beneath the ice to a depth of several meters. Clinging lifeforms might scale the walls of the cracks and even hibernate within the walls, whereas floating life forms may be able to move with the tides as the cracks open and close on a daily cycle.

Note: the life-forms depicted here are not meant to imply a particular shape or appearance of life that might have evolved on Europa. Earth-style “flowers”, “bugs”, and “jellyfish” are unlikely on Europa but their ecological analogues may exist in such a setting.

Credit (image and some text): artwork by Barbara Aulicino based on the work of Richard Greenberg/American Scientist (Figure 9 in Greenberg 2002) [link]

This image of Europa's surface shows a region shaped like a mitten with a jumbled, "chaotic" texture. Development of such terrain may be one of the major processes for resurfacing of the moon. The material in the mitten has the appearance of frozen slush and seems to bulge upward from the adjacent surface, which has been bent downward and cracked, especially along the southwest (lower left) margins.

Credit (image and some text): NASA/JPL/University of Arizona [link]

Artist's conception of a scenario for delivering liquid water to the surface of Europa. The surface feature shown in the previous figure might be caused by liquid water melting through to the surface from a near-surface "lake" that was, itself, melted into Europa's icy crust by upwelling warmer water over a seafloor volcano in the subsurface ocean.

Credit: from Schmidt et al. (2011) [link] [link]

The "chaotic terrain" seen in many regions on the surface if Europa is evidence of extreme mixing between surface ice and sub-surface water. The white and blue colors seen in this image outline areas that have been blanketed by a fine dust of ice particles ejected at the time of formation of the large (26 kilometer in diameter) crater Pwyll some 1000 kilometers to the south. A few small craters of less than 500 meters in diameter can be seen associated with these regions. These were probably formed by large, intact, blocks of ice thrown up in the impact explosion that formed Pwyll. The unblanketed surface has a reddish brown color that has been coated by mineral contaminants carried and spread by water vapor released from below the crust when it was disrupted. The original color of the icy surface was probably a deep blue color seen in large areas elsewhere on the moon. The colors in this picture have been enhanced for visibility.

Credit (image and some text): NASA/JPL/University of Arizona [link]

Read This! More information about the Galilean Moons of Jupiter


Life in Europa’s oceans

  • Greenberg, R., 2002, American Scientist 90, 48 - "Tides and the Biosphere of Europa: A Liquid-water Ocean beneath a Thin Crust of Ice May Offer Several Habitats for the Evolution of Life on One of Jupiter's Moons” [link]

  • Greenberg, R., 2010, Astrobiology, 10, 275 - “Transport Rates of Radiolytic Substances into Europa's Ocean: Implications for the Potential Origin and Maintenance of Life” (2010AsBio..10..275G)

  • Greenberg, R., 2011, Astrobiology, 11, 183 - "Exploration and Protection of Europa's Biosphere: Implications of Permeable Ice” (2011AsBio..11..183G)

Also see

    • Astrobiology Magazine, 2009 (October 16) - “Europa has enough oxygen for life” [link]

Life in Antarctic subsurface lake

  • Christner, B. C., Priscu, J. C., Achberger, A. M., et al., 2014, Nature, 512, 310 - “A microbial ecosystem beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet” [link]

Ocean to surface connection

  • Chandler, D. L., 2002 (October 20), New Scientist - “Thin ice opens lead for life on Europa” [link]

Europa chaotic terrain

  • Schmidt, B. E., Blankenship, D. D., Patterson, G. W., & Schenk, P. M., 2011, Nature, 479, 502 - “Active formation of ‘chaos terrain’ over shallow subsurface water on Europa” [link]