An American-Canadian team of scientists has discovered a rare landscape that appears to be very similar to one of Jupiter’s icy moons, Europa.
This landscape consists of a frozen and sulphurous environment, where sulphur associated with Arctic bacteria offer clues for the upcoming missions in the search for traces of life on Europa.
It is not easy to find a place on Earth where ice and sulphur come together, supposedly like on this Galilean moon. Nonetheless, this place has been located at Borup Fjord Pass in the Canadian High Arctic. Here the sulphurous yellow emissions contrast with the whiteness of the environment, creating images similar to those captured at Jupiter’s satellite.
The team has now verified that the sulphur involved in the life cycle of Arctic microorganisms has some characteristics that could help to detect biological remains on Europa. Large space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency are already in the process of preparing missions.
Dr Damhnait Gleeson, a lead author of the study and member of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Spain, explained to SINC: “we have discovered that elemental sulphur can contain morphological, mineralogical and organic biosignatures linked to bacterial activity. If they are found on Europa, this would suggest the possible presence of microorganisms.”
The biosignatures are associated with needle and rhomboid sulphur shapes in which mineralized remains of microorganisms and extracellular material appears.
Using electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction techniques, the researchers has observed a rare type of sulphur in association with organic components. They detected small quantities of protein, fatty acids and other biomolecules in the sulphurous material. The results appear in the journal Astrobiology.
“There is much evidence of bacterial activity,” said Dr Gleeson, who wonder if in the Europa’s icy crust, or the ocean or lakes supposedly beneath it, there could be a similar microbial community that uses sulphur as their source of energy.
Bibliographic information: Damhnait F. Gleeson, R.T. Pappalardo, M.S. Anderson, S.E. Grasby, R.E. Mielke, K.E. Wright, and A.S. Templeton. Biosignature Detection at an Arctic Analog to Europa. Astrobiology. February 2012, 12(2): 135-150. doi:10.1089/ast.2010.0579