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.

Is There Life on Earth?

Hello, friends!

Let’s imagine some space aliens are cruising by our Solar System.  They turn their scanners on our planet and see… what?

Among other things, they’d notice that Earth’s landmasses are partially covered with a strange, green-colored substance.  Of course, you and I know what that green substance is.  It’s chlorophyll.  But would those extraterrestrial observers, who have no prior knowledge of our planet, be able to figure that out?  Even if they did, would they realize what chlorophyll is used for?  Maybe.  Probably not, though.

Which brings me to my all-time favorite scientific paper: “A search for life on Earth from the Galileo spacecraft,” by Carl Sagan et al.  I love this paper in part because it’s so clearly and concisely written, with jargon kept to a minimum.  Sagan was, after all, a talented science communicator.  But I also love this paper because its conclusions are so shocking, so eye-opening.

In 1990, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft turned all its high-tech instruments toward Earth and detected… not much, actually.  Galileo did pick up radio broadcasts emanating from the planet’s surface.  Aside from that, though, Galileo’s data offered highly suggestive (but also highly circumstantial) evidence on Earthly life.  The lesson: finding life on other planets is hard.  Even using our very best equipment, it was hard for NASA to detect signs of life right here on Earth!

At least that’s what I got out of reading Sagan’s Galileo experiment paper.  And based on various commentaries I’ve read or heard about this paper, that seems to be the lesson other people got out of it too.  So I was surprised to hear Sagan himself, approximately seven-and-a-half minutes into this interview, saying the exact opposite.

We’ve flown by some sixty worlds.  We claim that we haven’t found life anywhere, and that that is a significant result.  That is, that we would have found life had it been there.  But this has never been calibrated.  We’ve never flown by the Earth with a modern interplanetary spacecraft, all instruments on, and detected life here.  And so Galileo, because of this peculiar gravity assist VEEGA trajectory, permits us to do that.  And as I’ll describe tomorrow, we find life five or six different ways, including intelligent life.  And this then means that the negative results that we find elsewhere are, in fact, significant.

I’ve been puzzled by this for a while now, but I think I’ve finally figured out why Sagan would say this.  It’s politics.

On the one hand, scientists need to understand the challenges they’ll face (including the limitations of their own equipment) in searching for life on other worlds.  That really is, I think, the purpose of the Galileo experiment paper.  On the other hand, it would not do to say on public television, to cantankerous taxpayers and the listening ears of Congress, that NASA spends millions of dollars on space probes that are not even capable of detecting life right here on Earth.

Space exploration is expensive.  And like all expensive types of research, sooner or later the researchers involved have to learn how to play politics.