JUN 16, 2019 6:27 AM PDT

New Analysis Reveals That Europa's Oceans Likely Contain Table Salt

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Bouchard

Among the bevy of natural satellites that orbit the solar system’s largest-known planet, Europa is perhaps one of the most intriguing. Several flyby missions, starting with the Voyager 1 probe in 1979, have suggested the presence of a briny sub-surface ocean. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Europa tends to be a target for scientific observations.

The yellow regions on Europa are now thought to be sodium chloride.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

While astronomers have long thought that Europa sported salty sub-surface oceans, it wasn’t until recently that astronomers confirmed the existence of sodium chloride (table salt) there. The latest findings, which have been published in the journal Science Advances, suggest that Europa’s ocean content is more similar to Earth’s than initially thought; and this has implications for the world’s habitability, among other things.

The flyby missions over the years have built a compelling argument for this long-unconfirmed idea, but it wasn’t until researchers at both Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory did some investigating of their own that all the puzzle pieces finally started coming together. Their visible light spectral analysis offered the most reliable indication of sodium chloride on Europa to date.

Related: Is Europa our best shot at finding life elsewhere in the solar system?

Scientists have known for quite some time that Europa exhibits salts, but identifying the type of salt is a more challenging task. The spectral analysis revealed shades of yellow in distinct regions, and while it was a bit of a head-scratcher at first, the researchers kept digging and finally made their discovery.

"We thought that we might be seeing sodium chlorides, but they are essentially featureless in an infrared spectrum," explained Mike Brown, a co-author of the paper. "People have traditionally assumed that all of the interesting spectroscopy is in the infrared on planetary surfaces because that's where most of the molecules that scientists are looking for have their fundamental features."

"No one has taken visible wavelength spectra of Europa before that had this sort of spatial and spectral resolution. The Galileo spacecraft didn't have a visible spectrometer. It just had a near-infrared spectrometer," added Samantha Trumbo, the paper’s lead author.

Related: A reexamination of Galileo's spacecraft data reveals how plumes erupt from Europa

The researchers admit that the source of the sodium chloride is still very much a mystery, and while it’s certainly possible that it originated from the moon’s sub-surface ocean, this is not a guarantee. Regardless, the existence of table salt on one of the solar system’s most captivating moons is no laughing matter, and perhaps the discovery deserves some follow-up attention.

It should be interesting to see what planetary scientists find as they continue studying Europa from a distance, but perhaps one day we’ll be able to explore the moon up close and personal with a dedicated planetary science mission to answer many of the remaining questions regarding this world and its potential for habitability.

Source: Caltech, Science Advances

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
You May Also Like
DEC 23, 2020
Space & Astronomy
It's Not a Quasar, It's a Blazar
DEC 23, 2020
It's Not a Quasar, It's a Blazar
This image is an artist's concept of what a blazar might look like, by NASA. Check out actual shots of the blazar in the ...
JAN 13, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Astronomers Identify Another Crucial Aspect for Planets to Support Life
JAN 13, 2021
Astronomers Identify Another Crucial Aspect for Planets to Support Life
For some time now, we have known of the 'Goldilocks zone'- a distance from the sun that leads to planets neither ...
MAR 06, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Astronomers Find Tectonic Activity on Exoplanet
MAR 06, 2021
Astronomers Find Tectonic Activity on Exoplanet
For the first time, researchers from the University of Bern in Switzerland have found evidence of tectonic activity on a ...
APR 10, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Japanese Spacecraft Launched to Clean Space Junk
APR 10, 2021
Japanese Spacecraft Launched to Clean Space Junk
  There are currently around 900,000 pieces of man-made space junk orbiting Earth- mostly from now-defunct satellit ...
APR 21, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
New Pulsar Detected in Southern Hemisphere
APR 21, 2021
New Pulsar Detected in Southern Hemisphere
A new pulsar has been discovered with images from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope, a low-frequency radio t ...
JUN 08, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Astrophysicists Discover Origins of First Structures in Milky Way
JUN 08, 2021
Astrophysicists Discover Origins of First Structures in Milky Way
A team of scientists led by the Centre for Astrobiology have discovered that the bulges we see in disc galaxies formed i ...
Loading Comments...