Plate tectonics on Europa raise possibility of alien life

A new study suggests that Jupiter's moon Europa experiences plate tectonic activity similar to that on Earth, a finding raises the chances of life existing in the vast ocean believed to lie beneath the moon's icy shell.
By Delila James | Dec 06, 2017
A new study suggests that Jupiter's moon Europa experiences plate tectonic activity similar to that on Earth a finding that may raise the chances of life existing in the vast ocean believed to lie beneath the moon's icy shell.

The research is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Researchers used computer modeling to demonstrate that the process of subduction, in which a tectonic plate slips underneath another and sinks into a planet's interior, could physically occur on Europa's icy surface.

The model showed that variations in salt content in the surface ice shell could provide the necessary density differences for an ice slab to subduct.

The findings support earlier studies showing regions of Europa's surface that seem to be expanding.

"We have this evidence of extension and spreading, so the question becomes where does that material go?" said lead author Brandon Johnson, an assistant professor at Brown University's Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, in a statement. "On Earth the answer is subduction zones. What we show is that under reasonable assumptions for conditions on Europa, subduction could be happening there as well, which is really exciting."

One reason for the excitement is that subduction provides a way for oxidants and other chemicals essential to life to make their way from the surface crust to the subsurface ocean below.

"If indeed there's life in that ocean, subduction offers a way to supply the nutrients it would need," says Johnson.

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