Surprising oxygen insights from a close flyby of Europa

This view of Jupiter's icy moon Europa was captured by the JunoCam imager aboard NASA's Juno spacecraft on September 29, 2022, during the mission's close flyby. The agency's Europa Clipper spacecraft will explore the moon as it orbits Jupiter. JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS, Kevin M. Gill CC BY 3.0

The ice-covered Jovian moon produces 1,000 tons of oxygen every 24 hours—enough to breathe a day for a million humans.

Scientists with NASAWin Juno's mission Thursday They calculated that the rate of oxygen produced on the Jovian moon Europa was significantly lower than previous studies. Published on March 4 Natural AstronomyThe findings were obtained by measuring hydrogen emission from the surface of the icy moon using data collected by the spacecraft's Jovian Auroral Distribution Experiment (JAD) instrument.

The paper's authors estimate that the amount of oxygen produced is about 26 pounds (12 kilograms per second) every second. Previous estimates range from a few pounds per second to 2,000 pounds per second (over 1,000 kilograms per second). Scientists believe that some of the oxygen produced in this way may find its way into the moon's surface ocean as a potential source of metabolic energy.

Europa's potential for life

Europa is the fourth largest, with an equatorial diameter of 1,940 miles (3,100 kilometers). Jupiter's 95 known moons and the smallest of the four Galilean satellites. Scientists believe a vast internal ocean of salty water lurks beneath its icy crust, and they are intrigued by the possibility of life-supporting conditions below the surface.

Water isn't the only focus of astrophysicists: the location of Jovian moons also plays an important role in biological possibilities. Europa's orbit places it in the middle of the gas giant radiation belts. Jupiter's charged or ionized particles bombard the icy surface, splitting water molecules in two to form oxygen, which enters the moon's ocean.

Jupiter's charged particles impact Europa's surface

Charged particles from Jupiter impact Europa's surface, splitting frozen water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen molecules. Scientists believe that some of this newly formed oxygen gas may have moved the moon's surface toward the ocean, as depicted in the inset image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SWRI/PU

“Europa is slowly losing its water in a stream that flows like an ice sheet. Except, in this case, the stream is a liquid of particles that are ionized around Jupiter by its unusual magnetic field,” said JADE scientist Jamey Szalay. Princeton University In New Jersey. “When these ionized particles hit Europa, they break the water-ice molecule by molecule at the surface to produce hydrogen and oxygen. In a way, the entire ice is constantly being eroded by waves of charged particles washing over it.

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Capture the blast

When Juno flew within 220 miles (354 kilometers) of Europa on September 29, 2022 at 2:36 p.m. PDT, JADE detected and measured hydrogen and oxygen ions created by charged particles “picked up” by Jupiter's magnetosphere. The field is like passing the moon.

“During NASA Galileo The mission flew by Europa, which opened our eyes to the complex and dynamic interactions Europa has with its environment. Juno brought a new ability to directly measure the composition of charged particles from Europa's atmosphere, and we can't wait to peek further behind the scenes of this amazing water world,” said Salle. “But what we didn't realize is that Juno's observations on the amount of oxygen produced on Europa's icy surface will give us so much more. Gives tight control.”

Juno 11 is designed to study the Jovian system with sophisticated science instruments, including nine charged-particle and electromagnetic wave sensors to study Jupiter's magnetosphere.

“Our ability to fly close to the Galilean satellites during our extended mission has begun to tackle a wide area of ​​science, including some unique opportunities to contribute to the investigation of Europa's habitability,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno's Southwest Research Institute. in San Antonio. “We're not done yet. And the first probes of the Moon flyby and Jupiter's closest ring and polar atmosphere are yet to come.

Oxygen production is one of many aspects that NASA's Europa Clipper mission will study when it reaches Jupiter in the 2030s. The mission has nine sophisticated payloads. Scientific instruments To determine whether conditions are suitable for life in Europa.

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Now Bolton and the rest of the Juno mission team have set their sights on another Jovian world, the volcano-adorned moon Io. On April 9, the spacecraft will come within about 10,250 miles (16,500 kilometers) of its surface. Data collected by Juno will add to findings from past Io flybys, including two closest approaches of about 932 miles (1,500 kilometers) on December 30, 2023 and February 3, 2024.

Note: JR. Salah, F. Allegrini, R.W. Ebert, F. Bagnell, S.J. Bolton, S. Fatemi, T.J. McComas, A. Pontoni, J. Sour, H.D. Smith, “Oxygen production from dissociation of Europa's water-ice surface” DF Strobel, SD Vance, A. Vorburger and RJ Wilson, 4 March 2024, Natural Astronomy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41550-024-02206-x

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for principal investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA's New Frontiers program, managed for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) funded the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper. Lockheed Martin in Denver builds and operates the space shuttle.

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