Washington: Missions hoping to explore the huge subsurface ocean thought to exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa may have to dig really deep, researchers say.
According to new research, water stays in a liquid state near Europa’s surface for just a few tens of thousands of years or so, which is a blink of an eye in geological terms, since our solar system is more than 4.5 billion years old.
“A global water ocean may be present, but relatively deep below the surface — around 25 to 50 kilometres,” Klara Kalousova, from France’s University of Nantes and Charles University in Prague, said in a statement.
“There could be areas of liquid water at much shallower depths, say around 5 kilometers, but these would only exist for a few tens of thousands of years before migrating downwards,” Kalousova said.
Many researchers think Europa, which is about 1,900 miles (3,100 km) wide, harbours an enormous global ocean beneath its shell of ice.
While Europa’s surface is frigid, heat generated in the moon’s interior by Jupiter’s gravitational pull keeps this ocean — which may be 60 miles (100 km) deep — from freezing solid.
Here on Earth, life thrives wherever liquid water is found. So Europa is an intriguing target for future missions seeking signs of life elsewhere in the solar system.
But scientists don’t know how difficult it would be for a future Europa probe to access the moon’s ocean, because they’re not sure how deep beneath the crust it lies. Some researchers have speculated that pockets of liquid water may persist just a few miles below the surface, but the new study throws cold water on that prospect.
Kalousova mathematically modelled how mixtures of liquid water and solid ice behave in a variety of conditions. She found that differences in density and viscosity, along with several other factors, probably cause water near Europa’s surface to migrate downward rapidly through partially melted ice to meet up with the larger ocean.
The findings of the study have been presented at the European Planetary Science Congress in Madrid.