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Europa is one of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons. Galileo Galilei discovered it after he began using telescopes in astronomy. Scientists are very interested in this moon because they see a lot of potential for life there.

An image of Europe, one of Jupiter's moons.

Europa is covered in ice and unknown reddish-brown material.

Icy Shell

This moon’s shell is something much different than Earth’s crust. It has a thick layer of ice 10-15 miles thick! This is about half as thick as the planetary crust of Earth. 

An image of Europa from two sides.

The left is a normal image of Europa while the second has enhanced color differences for better observation!

This frozen wonderland is possible thanks to the moon being 483 million miles from the Sun! The average temperature on this moon varies from -160 to -220 degrees Celsius. If you want to visit, you’d definitely have to layer up!

Water on Europa 

If it’is so cold there, how can it possibly have oceans? Well, scientists believe that Europa, like Earth, has a hot iron core. This core is able to warm up an ocean 40 to 100 miles deep underneath the icy shell. That means the oceans are 6 to 15 times as deep as Earth’s deepest point.

Another theory is that Jupiter’s strong gravitational pull actually pulls and distorts the entire moon! This pulling provides energy to the moon that could heat the ocean!

An illustration of what the surface of Europa might be like.

The icy shell and ocean underneath. The radiation from Jupiter kills life signatures in the erupting water.

Despite being smaller than Earth’s moon, it’s believed to have twice as much water as Earth! Scientists have also found signs of water erupting from Europa like a volcano! This fuels their belief of water under the ice and a hot core.

Life Beyond Earth

Water is a necessary component for life as we know it and is relatively rare beyond Earth. Because Europa has so much water, scientists believe it has the potential for life! However, scientists haven’t found any evidence of life, yet. But, what would life be like on Europa?

A close-up image of the surface of Europa.

The block patterns in the ice are signs of shifting that hint to an ocean under the surface where life might be!

Well, Europa has oxygen in its atmosphere, which is a definite plus. But, its freezing temperatures mean that any lifeforms there are probably much different than any we’ve found here on Earth. Plus, Europa experiences exposure to radiation from Jupiter that would kill a human. What kind of organism could adapt to such conditions?

Future Exploration

Because of its potential for life, many scientists are eager to explore Europa. But, this poses many challenges! First, getting there is incredibly difficult as it is 7 times farther than Mars. Even if we got there, the extreme cold and radiation would make it hard for a person to explore.

An illustration of what the Europa Clipper might look like.

The Europa Clipper is set to be launched by NASA in the 2020s to explore the moon in more depth.

Let’s say we got to Europa. We’d still have trouble finding life! Drilling to the ocean would be very difficult. The deepest hole ever dug on Earth is only half as deep as Europa’s icy shell and only 9 inches in diameter! Who knows if there really is life on Europa? But, the only way to find out is to get there! 

Did you know?

Europa orbits its parent planet, Jupiter, once every 3.5 Earth days. Like the Moon, Europa is phase-locked. This means the same side of Europa is always facing Jupiter!

Other Great Resources:

Facts About Europa – Space.com: https://www.space.com/15498-europa-sdcmp.html

Europa: Ocean World – NASA Jet Propulsion Lab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kz9VhCQbPAk

(Video) Neil Degrasse Tyson: Life On Europa – Big Think: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEU3ppMIziI 


Written by: Jesus Cervantes