AUSTIN (KXAN) – While the country is dealing with freezing temperatures this week, scientists are looking at another icy world for alien life. University of Texas researchers say they have a new theory about how alien life may have developed on one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.

Europa is located about 400 million miles from Earth. Winds on the moon whip across the surface, dropping temperatures to negative 200-degrees Fahrenheit. It’s covered in a thick ice shell that is potentially several kilometers thick. Beneath that ice, an ocean.

“Our search for life is [essentially to] follow the water,” said University of Texas Associate Professor Marc Hesse. Hesse co-authored a recent paper theorizing that comets, striking the surface of Europa, could have helped life develop in these oceans.

“There are these kinds of nutrients, sort of these these materials at the surface of the ice shell, that we think are important for life, if they can make it into the ocean,” said lead author of the paper Evan Carnahan. Carnahan is a graduate student working on his Ph.D. at UT.

Forming life in Europa’s oceans

According to Hesse, three things are needed to form life: water, energy and nutrients.

While Europa’s oceans have plenty of water and energy, getting the nutrients into the ocean is challenging. This is where asteroids and comets come into play.

“You have these large impacts hitting these icy moons,” Carnahan said. Much like our moon, Europa is struck by things like comets and asteroids. These impacts bring nutrients with them, but also disturb sediments on the surface of the moon.

However, the ice shell of Europa is thick. Instead of cracking the ice, Carnahan and Hesse theorizes that these impacts are melting it.

“Ice is one of the few materials that is actually with a solid is less dense than the melt,” Hesse said. Because it is less dense, the water can actually pass through it, either through tiny cracks or by passing between the molecules.

Four large impact structures on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. Clockwise, from top left: Pwyll, Cilix, Tyre, and Mannannan. Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR

The researchers used a mathematical formula to develop the theory. Using the power of math, Carnahan concluded that the ice can “carry with it any of the kinds of nutrients or materials on the surface into that ocean.”

“Over time, gravity kind of always wins,” Hesse said. If the theory proves correct, Europa could be a habitatable environment for life.

According to Carnahan, an object would need to strike halfway through the ice for enough melt to occur that it could penetrate the icy shell. Hesse said that the amount of water generated would be amount currently found in Lake Tahoe.

The search for alien life on Europa

A computer-generated simulation of an impact to Europa’s ice shell from a 2015 study. The bright red area created by the impact represents melt water. A new study led by The University of Texas at Austin explores the post-impact behavior of melt water and how it could help transport ingredients for life to Europa’s ice-covered ocean. Credit: Rónadh Cox.

Both Hesse and Carnahan have been fascinated with finding alien life for sometime. Carnahan has had an obsession since childhood.

“If we can find you know, life even is so robust to form elsewhere in our solar system that has implications for the abundancy of life outside of our solar system,” Carnahan said.

Neither scientists thinks we’re going to find little green men. Instead, they expect microbes or single cell organism are far more likely to exist if there is life on Europa.

NASA will be doing their own research into alien life on Europa. In 2024, they’re launching the Europa Clipper mission, which will send a satellite into orbit around the moon. The Clipper will gather data on the surface of the moon. That data will also be used by Hesse and Carnahan to further develop their theory.