How Do They Know That: Europa’s Subsurface Ocean

Hello, friends!

This month is Europa month here on Planet Pailly!  For those of you who haven’t met Europa before, she’s one of the moons of Jupiter, and she’s generally counted among the top four places in the Solar System where we might find alien life.  This is in large part because Europa has a vast, global ocean of liquid water hidden beneath her surface.  By most estimates, Europa has twice as much liquid water as Earth!

But one might reasonably ask how we know, for certain, that Europa’s ocean of liquid water exists.  I mean, no space probe has ever cracked through Europa’s surface to check.  Not yet, anyway.  Which brings us to another episode of “How Do That Know That?”

HOW DO THEY KNOW THAT?
EUROPA’S SUBSURFACE OCEAN

There are three main lines of evidence pointing to the existence of Europa’s ocean: spectroscopic evidence, gravitational evidence, and magnetic evidence.

  • Spectroscopy: Every chemical substance in the universe interacts with light in its own unique way.  Very specific wavelengths of light will be absorbed and/or emitted, depending on what chemical substance you’re looking at.  So by measuring the wavelengths of light reflecting off Europa, scientists could determine what Europa’s surface is made of.  I won’t leave you in suspense.  The answer is water.  Frozen water.
  • Gravity: In the 1990’s, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft conducted several close flybys of Europa.  Each time, Europa’s gravity nudged Galileo ever so slightly off course.  By measuring exactly how much gravitational nudging Galileo experienced, scientists could calculate what Europa’s internal structure must be like.  Turned out there was a thick layer of low density material near the surface.  Water, in either a frozen or liquid phase, has a pretty low density.
  • Magnetism: Jupiter has an absurdly powerful magnetic field.  As Europa orbits Jupiter, a mysterious something inside Europa responds to Jupiter’s magnetism, creating what’s called an “induced magnetic field” around Europa.  Once again using data from the Galileo spacecraft, scientists could measure the shifting and changing intensity and orientation of Europa’s magnetic field as she orbited Jupiter.  As it so happens, a large volume of saltwater would react to Jupiter’s magnetic field in much the same way as the mysterious something inside Europa.

Taken individually, each line of evidence would have to be considered inconclusive.  Suggestive, perhaps, but ultimately inconclusive.  Sure, spectroscopy tells us there’s frozen water on Europa’s surface, but that layer of frozen water might only be skin deep.  Gravity data tells us there’s a very deep layer of low density material, but gravity data, by itself, cannot tells us what that low density material is.  And if you didn’t know anything else about Europa’s internal structure or chemical composition, then her induced magnetic field could be explained in many different ways.  Taken together, though, these three lines of evidence leave little room for doubt: there’s an ocean of liquid water (specifically saltwater) beneath the surface of Europa.

Science is, in my mind, a little like trying to solve a crossword puzzle.  Not all the answers are obvious at first, but with each word in the puzzle you find, the intersecting words become a little easier to figure out.  Maybe you thought the answer to 17 across (What’s beneath the surface of Europa?) could be three or four different things.  But then you found out the middle letter is a T, and the last letter is an R, and now you can narrow down the possibilities to one and only one solution.

By following multiple lines of evidence, scientists can now say, with a very high degree of certainty, that there’s an ocean of liquid water beneath the surface Europa.  Exactly how thick is the ice above that ocean?  And what minerals are present in the ocean?  How much hydrothermal activity occurs at the bottom of that ocean?  Those are some of the next questions that need answers.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

There’s a lot of information out there about Europa.  A little too much, actually.  It’s hard to sort through it all.  So if you want to learn more about Europa, I highly recommend Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space by Kevin Peter Hand.  It’s got all the best Europa facts you could ever want, all together in a single book.  And Hand devotes a full chapter to each of those lines of evidence that I listed above.

6 thoughts on “How Do They Know That: Europa’s Subsurface Ocean

  1. It’s always interesting how much logical deduction plays into these things. Reading it, my initial question is whether there’s any alternative explanation for all the data. For instance, could it be ice all the way down to whatever is below? Or is it the magnetic effects that preclude that?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m hesitant to say too much about the magnetic field part because that was the part I understood the least. I’d never heard about it until I read Alien Oceans, but I found a whole bunch of articles and papers that seemed to back up what Alien Oceans said.

      I gather that there could be alternative explanations for how the induced magnetic field behaves, but you’d have to hypothesize things about Europa that we already know aren’t true. That leaves a saltwater ocean as the best explanation.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. We have to crack through several kilometers of ice (at least) to reach the ocean. It’s a major engineering challenge for NASA, or whichever other space agency ends up doing it.

      As for humans living on Europa… I’m working on a post about how long a human would last on Europa’s surface. Spoiler alert: not long. There are other places in the Solar System that would be far easier for us to colonize.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this post. So much of what I think I know comes from experts and authorities telling me so. Sometimes I can test it for myself, but so often – not. Having the reasoning laid out (even in outline) is great. The crossword analogy is great too.

    I once wrote a story where a probe uses plutonium as a heat source to melt its way through a moon’s ice shell to the ocean below. (I used a different moon of Jupiter, Amalthea, just to be contrary. The story is included in a free digital fiction anthology if anyone is interested in my take: https://storyoriginapp.com/universalbooklinks/cf4861ee-3d81-11eb-b600-b38e8f2bec99 Sorry about the loooong link but it does take you to a choice of stores. Free, so I hope posting the link is okay.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perfectly fine by me!

      Melting through the ice makes a lot of sense to me. I feel like I’ve read proposals to do something like that on Europa and/or Enceladus. Good for you for being contrarian. Amalthea deserves a little Sci-Fi love too!

      Liked by 1 person

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