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.

Oops! I Learned Something Wrong About Io

Hello, friends!

As you may remember from a previous post, Io is my favorite moon in the Solar System.  He may not be the prettiest moon, and he certainly isn’t the most habitable.  I, for one, would never, ever, ever want to live there.  You see, Io is the most volcanically active object in the Solar System.  He is constantly—and I do mean constantly!—spewing up this mixture of molten hot sulfur compounds.  It gets everywhere, and it is totally gross.

But it’s also super fascinating—fascinating enough that Io ended up becoming my #1 favorite moon in the whole Solar System.  I’ve read a lot about Io over the years.  I thought I understood Io pretty well.  But I was wrong.  One of the facts in my personal collection of Io-related facts was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how Io’s volcanism works.  Let me explain:

Io is caught in this gravitational tug of war between his planet (Jupiter) and his fellow Galilean moons (Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto).  Jupiter’s gravity pulls one way; the moons pull another; Io is caught in the middle, feeling understandably queasy.  I always thought this gravitational tug-of-war was directly responsible for Io’s volcanic activity.  But it’s not.  Recently, while reading a book called Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space, I realized that I had some unlearning to do.

The gravitational tug-of-war has forced Io into a highly elliptical (non-circular) orbit.  This means there are times when Io gets very close to Jupiter, and times when Io is much farther away.  When Io’s orbit brings him close to Jupiter, Jupiter’s gravity compresses Io’s crust.  And when Io moves father away, his crust gets a chance to relax.  This cycle of compressing and relaxing—of squeezing and unsqueezing—causes Io’s interior to get hot, which, in turn, keeps Io’s volcanoes erupting.

This squeezing and unsqueezing action wouldn’t happen if not for Io’s highly elliptical orbit, so the gravitational tug-of-war with Jupiter’s other moons is still partially responsible for Io’s volcanism.  But the tug-of-war is not the direct cause of Io’s volcanism, as I always assumed it to be.

I wanted to share all this with you today because some of you may have had the same misunderstanding about Io that I did.  Hopefully I’ve cleared that up for you!  But also, I think this is a good example of how the process of lifelong learning works.  If you’re a lifelong learner (as I am), you may have favorite topics that you think you know an awful lot about.  But there’s always more to learn, and sometimes learning more means unlearning a few things that you thought you already knew.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

If you’re an Io fanatic like me, I highly recommend Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space by Kevin Peter Hand.  The book is mainly about Europa and the other icy/watery moons of the outer Solar System, but there’s a surprising amount of information in there about Io, too.  Apparently, if it turns out that Europa really is home to alien life (as many suspect her to be), then Io may have played a crucial role in making that alien life possible.