Astronomers say carbon dioxide on Jupiter's moon Europa likely originated in ocean

NIRCam (the Near Infrared Camera) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured this picture of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Webb identified carbon dioxide on the icy surface of Europa that likely originated in the moon’s subsurface ocean. Photo courtesy of NASA

Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Data from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope shows carbon dioxide on a region of Jupiter's moon Europa, suggesting it potentially could harbor conditions suitable for life.

Astronomers found carbon dioxide on the icy surface of a region called Tara Regio, and analysis from two studies suggests it likely originated in the moon's subsurface ocean.

"Understanding the chemistry of Europa's ocean will help us determine whether it's hostile to life as we know it, or if it might be a good place for life," Geronimo Villanueva, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a news release.

Villanueva is the lead author of one of the studies. Using Webb's Near-Infrared Spectrograph instrument, researchers determined the chemical composition of ice by measuring the amount of light at different wavelengths.

"We now think we have observational evidence that the carbon we see on Europa's surface came from the ocean. That's not a trivial thing. Carbon is a biologically essential element," Samantha Trumbo, of Cornell University in Ithaca and lead author of the other paper, said.

Heavy concentrations of carbon dioxide in the salty Tara Regio region, where the surface ice has been disrupted, suggest the carbon originated deep in the ocean. This suggests a similarity with Earth's deep-sea hydrothermal vent systems, where life on Earth may have originated, Scientific American reported.

Villanueva's looked for a plume of water vapor but found no evidence in the new Webb data. Plumes were tentatively detected in previous research, suggesting they could be variable.

"This work gives a first hint of all the amazing solar system science we'll be able to do with Webb," Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, said in the NASA news release.

In October 2024, NASA is set to launch its Europa Clipper spacecraft, which will further study the possibility of life-sustaining conditions on Europa.