Arctic Ecology Provides Clues to Life on Jupiter’s Moon, Europa

 

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In a Canadian fjord scientists have found a landscape similar to one of Jupiter's icy moons: Europa, consisting of a frozen and sulphurous environment, where sulphur associated with Arctic bacteria offer clues for the upcoming missions in the search for traces of life on Europa.

"We have discovered that elemental sulphur can contain morphological, mineralogical and organic 'biosignatures' linked to bacterial activity. If they are found on Europa, this would suggest the possible presence of microorganisms," as explained to SINC by Damhnait Gleeson, lead author of the study and currently member of the Centro de Astrobiologia (INTA-CSIC, Spain).


It's difficult to find a place on Earth where ice and sulphur come together, supposedly like on Europa, Jupiter's moon. Nonetheless, this place has been located at Borup Fjord Pass in the Canadian High Arctic. Here the sulphurous yellow emissions contrast with the whiteness of the environment, creating images similar to those captured at Jupiter's satellite.

US researchers have now verified that the sulphur involved in the life cycle of Arctic microorganisms has some characteristics that could help to detect biological remains on Europa. Large space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency are already in the process of preparing missions.

The 'biosignatures' are associated with needle and rhomboid sulphur shapes in which mineralized remains of microorganisms and extracellular material appears. Thanks to electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction techniques, the formation of a rare type of sulphur has also been observed in association with organic components: the rosickyite. What is more is that small quantities (parts per million) of protein, fatty acids and other biomolecules have appeared in the sulphurous material.

"There is much evidence of bacterial activity," highlights Gleeson, who wonder if in the Europa's icy crust, or the ocean or lakes supposedly beneath it, there could be a similar microbial community that uses sulphur as their source of energy.

The researcher conducted the study, which has now been published in the Astrobiology journal, as a member of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Colorado in the USA. She is currently working as a scientist in the Centro de Astrobiologia in Río Tinto (Spain), a place similar to Mars.

The image of Europa below and an enlargement of the Thrace region gives visual evidence of the dramatic advance in our knowledge of Jupiter's second Galilean satellite due to the Galileo mission. Prior to the Galileo mission, scientists' knowledge of Europa was simply a small ice- covered moon with an exceptionally bright surface covered by faint curved and linear markings. 

Now, scientists see evidence of a young and thin, cracked and ruptured ice shell, probably moving slowly over the surface of a briny ocean that is 100 kilometers (62 miles) or more deep. Europa has become recognized as a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life and is now an important target for future solar system exploration. 

 

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The Daily Galaxy via FECYT – Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology and Astrobiology

Image credit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/webcast/galileo/img-1-europadisk.cfm

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