One moon of Jupiter produces enough oxygen to keep a million people alive for a day

It is about Europe, which produces 1,000 tons of oxygen every 24 hours. NASA announced this week that the oxygen generated by this satellite is enough to keep a million people alive for a day, reports Business Insider.

Oxygen production is very different on Europa than on Earth. NASA PHOTO (Archive)

However, the new estimates, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, are not intended to determine how many people might live on this Jupiter moon. But it helps researchers figure out whether or not Europa hosts life.

We think Europa is the only place to look for life beyond Earth.”said Curt Niebur, NASA's principal investigator for the exploration of distant planets, who was not involved in this study.

If there were life forms on Europa, they could look like microbes or maybe something more complex, NASA claims. However, these would not be visible from the surface, as Europa looks like a frozen desert from the outside.

Most likely, they would exist in the satellite's huge underground ocean, which could contain twice the amount of water on Earth.

Although water is an essential element for life, it is not the only one. There are a number of other chemical elements that scientists are looking for – oxygen being one of them.

Now, NASA's Juno spacecraft, currently orbiting Jupiter and its moons, has made the most accurate estimate yet of how much oxygen Europa produced. And it turns out it's much smaller than previously thought.

The latest estimate, of 1,000 tons of oxygen every 24 hours, is more than 86 times lower than some previous estimates. And this new information could call into question whether Europa is habitable.

How Europe produces oxygen

Oxygen production is very different on Europa than on Earth. While in the case of Earth, photosynthesis is responsible for the production of oxygen, in the case of Europa, it comes from the mother planet Jupiter.

Jupiter emits powerful radiation that envelops Europa in high-energy particles. These particles then interact with frozen water on the surface of the satellite.

The interaction separates the H2O molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. But the main question is where the oxygen goes. Some of it may get stuck in ice, some may end up in space, and some may end up in Europa's hidden ocean.

If enough oxygen reaches Europa's ocean, this would mean that it possesses one of the essential elements for life. “But this is a big question mark for us“because oxygen can go to so many different places, Niebur said.

NASA's Juno mission managed to shed more light on the total amount of oxygen that Europa's surface generates. However, it is still unclear how much oxygen is getting into the satellite's hidden ocean.

Oxygen measurement

To measure how much oxygen Europa's surface produces, scientists used the Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment (JADE) instrument aboard the Juno mission.

JADE was designed to measure charged particles in Jupiter's auroral regions. But when Juno flew past Europa in September 2022, JADE was able to successfully measure, for the first time, the charged particles being shed from the moon's atmosphere.

Using the JADE data, scientists estimated the total amount of hydrogen (not oxygen) in Europa's atmosphere. Because there is one oxygen atom for every two hydrogen atoms in a water molecule, the scientists were able to use the hydrogen data to then calculate the amount of oxygen generated at the surface.

This has really improved our ability to understand how much oxygen is being produced at the surface.”said lead study author Jamey Szalay, a space physics researcher at Princeton University.

But we don't know how much of it leaves the surface and how much ends up in the oceanSzalay added. NASA's next mission to Europa, Clipper, may provide an answer to that question.

The Europa Clipper mission

NASA's Europa Clipper mission is scheduled to launch in October 2024. Its main objective is to determine whether or not Europa is habitable.

Clipper will be equipped with instruments that should help reveal Europa's interior structure, such as a radar. With this instrument, NASA scientists will look tens of kilometers below the crust to identify features that could help establish the possibility of oxygen reaching the satellite's hidden ocean, Niebur said.

He pointed out that life existed on Earth for about 1.5 billion years without oxygen. If this was possible for Earth, then it might be possible for Europa.