web analytics
Decades ago, science fiction offered a hypothetical scenario: What if alien life were thriving in an ocean beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa? The notion pulled Europa out of obscurity and into the limelight where it has remained, stoking the imaginations of people both within and outside the science community who fantasize about humans discovering life beyond Earth. That fantasy, however, may be grounded in reality.

A Phoenician Noblewoman

Europa was yet another of Zeus’ paramours, and in this case, she was a Phoenician noblewoman who was abducted by Zeus after he had transformed himself into a bull. Rather fittingly, Zeus established Europa on the island of Crete as its queen, where he had several children with her, including Minos, the legendary king of Crete. In later ages, the continent of Europe would be named after Europa.

Surface is Younger than the Moon Itself

Although Europa is as old as the rest of the solar system, its surface is only between 40 and 90 million years old, due to tidal flexing of the crust that maintains tectonic activity that in turn, recycles the surface in much the same way that tectonic activity on Earth continually recycles the earth’s surface.

Europa has a Liquid Ocean Under its Crust

Like some other moons in the solar system, Europa is known to have a liquid saltwater ocean under its icy crust, which is suspected to be about 100 km deep. Studies have revealed that this ocean directly supports the ice crust as it rotates round the moon’s core once every 12,000 years or so.

Europa has an Oxygen-Based Atmosphere

Although Europa has a predominantly molecular oxygen atmosphere, the atmospheric pressure is only 0.1 µPa (micropascal), which is 10-12 lower than on Earth. The oxygen does not derive from biological process, but from solar radiation that breaks up hydrogen atoms into water and oxygen.

Water Volcanoes

Although “volcanoes” might not be the most accurate word to describe the phenomenon, the Hubble telescope has captured images of a 120-mile-high plume of water being ejected from Europa. It is thought that these jets erupt from the moon during times when tidal flexing is “squeezing” the ice crust, much like water might be squirted from a flexible container such as a soda bottle if it is squeezed.

join the flight crew

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest news, launch Alerts, exclusive merchandise and more