More Evidence for Salty Ocean on Jupiter’s Moon Europa

A new study by Prof Mike Brown from the California Institute of Technology and Dr Kevin Hand from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggests that salty water from the liquid ocean beneath Europa’s frozen exterior actually makes its way to the surface.

Based on new evidence from Jupiter's moon Europa, astronomers hypothesize that chloride salts bubble up from the icy moon's global liquid ocean and reach the frozen surface where they are bombarded with sulfur from volcanoes on Jupiter's innermost large moon, Io (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Based on new evidence from Jupiter’s moon Europa, astronomers hypothesize that chloride salts bubble up from the icy moon’s global liquid ocean and reach the frozen surface where they are bombarded with sulfur from volcanoes on Jupiter’s innermost large moon, Io (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

The study, accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal, also suggests there is a chemical exchange between the ocean and surface, making the ocean a richer chemical environment, and implies that learning more about the ocean could be as simple as analyzing the moon’s surface.

The findings were derived from spectroscopy delivered from the Keck Observatory, which operates the largest and most scientifically productive telescopes on Earth.

“We now have evidence that Europa’s ocean is not isolated – that the ocean and the surface talk to each other and exchange chemicals,” Prof Brown said. “That means that energy might be going into the ocean, which is important in terms of the possibilities for life there. It also means that if you’d like to know what’s in the ocean, you can just go to the surface and scrape some off.”

“The surface ice is providing us a window into that potentially habitable ocean below,” Dr Hand added.

Since the days of the Galileo mission, when the spacecraft showed that Europa was covered with an icy shell, scientists have debated the composition of Europa’s surface. The infrared spectrometer aboard Galileo was not capable of providing the detail needed to definitively identify some of the materials present on the surface.

Now, using current technology on ground-based telescopes, the scientists have definitively identified a spectroscopic feature on Europa’s surface that indicates the presence of a magnesium sulfate salt, a mineral called epsomite, that could only originate from the ocean below.

“Magnesium should not be on the surface of Europa unless it’s coming from the ocean,” Prof Brown said. “So that means ocean water gets onto the surface, and stuff on the surface presumably gets into the ocean water.”

Europa’s ocean is thought to be 100 kilometers deep and covers the entire globe. The moon remains locked in relation to Jupiter, with the same hemisphere always leading and the other trailing in its orbit. The leading hemisphere has a yellowish appearance, while the trailing hemisphere seems to be splattered and streaked with a red material.

“From Galileo’s spectra, people knew something was there besides water. They argued for years over what it might be – sodium sulfate, hydrogen sulfate, sodium hydrogen carbonate, all these things that look more or less similar in this range of the spectrum,” Prof Brown said. “But the really difficult thing was that the spectrometer on the Galileo spacecraft was just too coarse.”

The team decided that the latest spectrometers on ground-based telescopes could improve the data pertaining to Europa, even from a distance of about 400 million miles. Using the Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea, they first mapped the distribution of pure water ice versus anything else on the moon. The spectra showed that even Europa’s leading hemisphere contains significant amounts of nonwater ice. Then, at low latitudes on the trailing hemisphere – the area with the greatest concentration of the nonwater ice material – they found a tiny dip in the spectrum that had never been detected before.

The two researchers racked their brains to come up with materials that might explain the new spectroscopic feature, and then tested everything from sodium chloride to Drano in a lab at JPL, where they tried to simulate the environments found on various icy worlds.

“We tried to think outside the box to consider all sorts of other possibilities, but at the end of the day, the magnesium sulfate persisted,” Dr Hand said.

Some scientists had long suspected that magnesium sulfate was on the surface of Europa. “But the interesting twist is that it doesn’t look like the magnesium sulfate is coming from the ocean,” Prof Brown said.

Since the mineral the scientists found is only on the trailing side, where the moon is being bombarded with sulfur from Io’s, they believe that there is a magnesium-bearing mineral everywhere on Europa that produces magnesium sulfate in combination with sulfur. The pervasive magnesium-bearing mineral might also be what makes up the nonwater ice detected on the leading hemisphere’s surface.

They believe that this mystery magnesium-bearing mineral is magnesium chloride. But magnesium is not the only unexpected element on the surface of Europa. Fifteen years ago, Prof Brown showed that Europa is surrounded by an atmosphere of atomic sodium and potassium, presumably originating from the surface. The researchers reason that the sodium and potassium chlorides are actually the dominant salts on the surface of Europa, but that they are not detectable because they have no clear spectral features.

The scientists combined this information with the fact that Europa’s ocean can only be one of two types – either sulfate-rich or chlorine-rich. Having ruled out the sulfate-rich version since magnesium sulfate was found only on the trailing side, the team hypothesizes that the ocean is chlorine-rich and that the sodium and potassium must be present as chlorides.

“Therefore, the composition of Europa’s sea closely resembles the salty ocean of Earth. If you could go swim down in the ocean of Europa and taste it, it would just taste like normal old salt,” Prof Brown said.

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Bibliographic information: M.E. Brown, K.P. Hand. 2013. Salts and radiation products on the surface of Europa. Accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal; arXiv: 1303.0894