UT Study Models Europa’s Ocean Currents

The search for life on other planets has lately zeroed in on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. In 2011, a team of UT scientists were the first to find water there, and this summer a UT team drew up blueprints for a NASA lander that could one day go on a mission to Europa. Now another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place with a new study that expands our knowledge of Europa’s ocean currents.

“We’ve provided the first global model of ocean currents on Europa,” says Jackson School of Geosciences researcher Krista Soderlund, the study’s lead author. “Now we have a general idea of how the ocean water might be moving around, how it could transport heat through the ice shell, and how that could relate to the surface.”

Studying Europa from afar is tricky. Aside from its sheer distance from Earth (ranging from 365-600 million miles, depending on where the planets are in their orbits), Europa is covered in ice, with oceans underneath. So Soderlund and her colleagues used indirect measures, like data from a tool called a magnetometer, to study the oceans.

Among their findings, published in Nature this week: Patches of disrupted surface ice on Europa, known as chaos terrains, could be the result of convection (or heat transfer via fluids) in the ice shell. It’s just one more piece of information that scientists can use to learn more about the possibility of life on Europa.

We may still have years to wait before finding out if Europa harbors life. “The requirements for life all appear to be satisfied on Europa, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually there,” Soderlund says. “It’s still a big question mark.”

Image courtesy the Jackson School of Geosciences.


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