AUSTIN (KXAN) — New research out of the University of Texas could help scientists discover alien life on one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is about the size of Earth’s moon and is believed to have a liquid ocean on its surface. This ocean is covered by a thick layer of ice that is formed by “underwater snow”.
According to the university, the ice, formed by the “snow”, that covers Europa floats up from the depths of the ocean and sticks to the underside of the ice. The snow then freezes and causes the ice sheet to grow.
This snow, also known as frazil ice, is much less salty than the ocean it forms in.
Determining how salty the ocean is will be critical for a future mission to the icy moon for NASA’s Europa Clipper. The spacecraft will scan the moon using radar. The saltier the ice, the harder it will be to see into the ocean.
Understanding the saltiness of the ice will help NASA determine what the spacecraft is seeing, which could include signs that life has developed on the moon.
Discovering underwater snow in Antarctica
Scientists believe that Europa’s environment is similar to a location here on Earth, Antarctica. Studies have found the ocean nearest to the ice has similar features to the ocean beneath the Antarctic ice shelf.
The study conducted by the University of Texas examined how water freezes in this environment and forms underwater snow. Two types of ice are formed: congelation ice which grows directly on the ice shelf and frazil ice which forms as snowflakes.
Frazil ice is the type of “underwater snow” the team believes exists on Europa. According to lead author and UT graduate student Natalie Wolfenbarger, both types of ice are less salty. Because of the age of Europa’s ice shelf, they believe the ice is even less salty.
Aliens in the moon’s ocean
Why do scientists think that Europa has alien life? According to NASA, three elements are needed for life to exist: liquid water, the right chemicals and an energy source.
Scientists who study the potential alien life believe Europa has two of these elements: water and chemicals. They are not sure if an energy source, like undersea volcanoes, exists on the world.
If the Europa Clipper does detect alien life during its mission, scientists suspect it will be microbial life. Super small and not very complex.
The Europa Clipper mission will launch in 2024. The University of Texas is a partner in the mission.