Astronomers Solve Europa’s Salt Mystery


| LAST UPDATE 02/27/2023

By Stanley Wickens
Jupiter moon salt mystery
NASA/JPL/Michael Benson via Getty Images

Ready for some space talk? Well, hold on to your hats because astronomers may have just cracked a salty mystery at Jupiter's most famous moon - Europa. You see, Europa had features that astronomers couldn't previously quite figure out. But thanks to NASA's Galileo spacecraft and a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we might finally have an answer.

Let's break it down. In 2001, NASA's Galileo spacecraft took an image of Jupiter's moon Europa and found strange red streaks that looked like capillaries feeding a giant eyeball. Scientists assumed it was a mixture of sodium chloride salts with water ice, but the chemical signature didn't match any known salts on Earth. So what did they do? They recreated high-pressure conditions seen in the miles-thick icy crust of Europa in a laboratory to measure how that changed the formation of ice crystals from a brine mixture. And guess what? They discovered the first new salty ice water crystal structures found in over a century! These structures are likely candidates for the strange salty material on Europa's surface. 

Jupiter moon salt mystery solved
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Michael Benson via Getty Images
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Now, why is this important? Because salt can act like antifreeze and keep water liquid at colder temperatures, it may play an important role inside Europa by keeping its subsurface ocean in a liquid phase. This could help us better understand Europa's potential habitability - the liquid water ocean believed to exist beneath the moon's icy crust is one of the most promising spots for alien life development in our Solar System! "These are the only planetary bodies, other than Earth, where liquid water is stable at geological timescales, which is crucial for the emergence and development of life," says Baptiste Journaux, an acting assistant professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. "They are, in my opinion, the best place in our solar system to discover extraterrestrial life, so we need to study their exotic oceans and interiors to better understand how they formed, evolved, and can retain liquid water in cold regions of the Solar System, so far away from the Sun."

So there you have it folks - another step towards unlocking space's mysteries! Understanding these forms of salt could help scientists interpret findings from upcoming planetary science missions like NASA’s Europa Clipper mission scheduled to launch in 2024 or even ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer. Who knows what other secrets we'll uncover next. Stay tuned...

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