Europa may contain less oxygen than thought, which could hinder life.

New research reveals Jupiter's moon Europa's frozen surface has less oxygen than assumed, which could impair the moon's deep ocean life.

Even without oxygen, bacteria may be thriving in Europa's ocean miles (kilometers) beneath the icy crust. What else, “who knows,” said NASA scientist Kevin Hand, who was not involved in the Nature Astronomy paper published Monday.

The first time a spacecraft “directly sniffed” Europa was Juno's flyby, according to Princeton University lead author James Szalay. “We couldn’t wait to peek behind the curtain of its complex environment,” he emailed.

Despite “a significantly narrower range than we previously thought, there’s still a lot we can learn,” Szalay added.How much oxygen escapes into the moon's atmosphere, remains in the ice, and may reach the subsurface water is unknown.

Hand said further work is needed to validate these findings, which contradict earlier telescope discoveries of condensed oxygen in Europa's ice, indicating a higher oxygen content.

The new analysis uses data from NASA's Juno spacecraft's 2022 close flyby of Europa, 219 miles (353 kilometers).A U.S.-European team estimated that Europa's surface produces 13–39 pounds (6–18 kg) of oxygen each s

Previous estimates were substantially broader, with 2,245 pounds (1,100 kg) of oxygen created each second. So “unless Europa’s oxygen production was significantly higher in the past,” the new results suggest “a narrower range to support habitability,” researchers noted.

NASA promises an autumn Europa Clipper launch. During its orbit, the spacecraft will flyby Europa dozens of times, roughly the size of our moon.

more stories and articles