NASA's hopes of discovering life on Jupiter's icy moon have been dashed

NASA's hopes of discovering life on Jupiter's icy moon have been dashed

There was less oxygen than expected

Hopes of discovering extraterrestrial life have been dashed as NASA says Jupiter's moon has less oxygen than expected.

A new study suggests that the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa has less oxygen than expected, which could affect whether, if any, life might be hiding in Europa's underground ocean.

Even with little or no oxygen, microbes can still swarm in the ocean believed to exist miles beneath Europa's icy crust, The Guardian reports. As for what else, “who knows,” said NASA scientist Kevin Hand, who was not involved in the study published Monday in Nature Astronomy.

More work is needed to confirm these findings, which contradict earlier telescope observations of condensed oxygen in Europa's ice, indicating higher oxygen concentrations, Kevin Hand said.

The new study is based on data collected by NASA's Juno spacecraft during a particularly close flyby of Europe in 2022 - at a distance of just 219 miles (353 km), The Guardian notes.

The American-European team estimates that between 13 and 39 pounds (6 and 18 kg) of oxygen are produced on Europa's surface every second.

Previous estimates had a much wider range: up to 2,245 pounds (1,100 kilograms) of oxygen were produced per second. Thus, “unless Europa's oxygen production was significantly higher in the past,” the new measurements provide “a narrower range for maintaining habitability,” the researchers write.

This oxygen is formed along with hydrogen when Jupiter's radiation destroys Europa's global shell of frozen water, The Guardian emphasizes.

Lead author James Szalay of Princeton University said the Juno flyby was the first time a spacecraft had "directly sniffed" Europa's environs. “We were eager to see behind the curtain of her complex habitat,” he said in an email.

Although this was “a much narrower range than we previously thought, there is still a lot we can learn,” notes James Szalay.

It is unknown how much oxygen enters the atmosphere of Jupiter's moon, how much remains in the ice, and how much may end up in the underground sea.

NASA plans to launch Europa Clipper this fall. The spacecraft will make dozens of close flybys of Europa - almost the size of our moon - as it orbits the giant gas planet.

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