Is there life on the moons of Jupiter and what could it be like?

The largest planet in the solar system has 95 moons, as well as a ring system called the rings of Jupiter. The moons of this gas giant are of great interest to researchers, and some of them are even considered potentially suitable for life. So, during the mission «Juno» Astronomers were able to conduct a detailed study of the atmosphere of Jupiter's icy moon Europa, and the results of one of the latest studies, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, showed that the surface of this moon produces less oxygen than previously thought. Let us recall that the data from the «Galileo» confirmed the presence of an ocean beneath Europa's ice that contains approximately twice as much water as Earth's oceans. In addition, models based on the data show that Europa's ocean floor is in contact with rocks, making it a prime candidate for the search for life. But what could this life be like and what do scientists already know?

Is there life on the moons of Jupiter and what could it be like? The icy moon of Jupiter Europa is a potentially habitable world. Photo.

Icy moon of Jupiter Europa – a potentially habitable world


  • 1 Moons of Jupiter and Saturn
  • 2 Life on Europa
  • 3 What are astronomers looking for on Jupiter’s moon?
  • 4 Potentially habitable worlds of the Solar System

Moons of Jupiter and Saturn

Despite a series of amazing discoveries about the size of the Universe and celestial objects in its vastness, we are still alone – today there is no convincing evidence of the existence of life beyond the Earth. And since interplanetary and interstellar travel is just ahead of humanity, it is necessary to search for living organisms within the Solar System with the help of robotic vehicles. And this is already a huge achievement.

So, in a short period of time, we have learned a lot about our star and the planets of the system, in which rocky worlds such as Earth and Mars coexist with gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn. Numerous space missions sent to these relatively nearby planets have allowed scientists to image their satellites or moons, celestial bodies that could potentially support life.

The satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. The largest and most famous satellites of Jupiter. Photo.

The largest and most famous satellites of Jupiter

This is interesting: A mysterious source of carbon was discovered on the surface of Jupiter’s satellite

But despite the abundance of satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, there is currently no convincing evidence that life can exist on one of these moons. However, we know that beneath Europa's icy shell lies an ocean of liquid water—one of the essential ingredients for all living organisms. Many scientists believe that this vast subglacial sea may harbor microorganisms similar in size and complexity to bacteria found on Earth.

Life on Europa

Recently NASA's James Webb Space Telescope made a monumental discovery, finding traces of life on Europa. Infrared camera images of this moon's unique cold landscape reveal an abundance of carbon dioxide, hinting at the possible presence of life beneath its icy surface.

This groundbreaking discovery, published in the journal Science on September 21, 2023, was the result of a joint effort by two independent teams of astronomers. Their careful study suggests thepresence of carbon dioxideon Europa, a vital building material.

Life on Europa. Europa is a unique satellite of the gas giant. Photo.

Europe is a unique satellite of the gas giant

Did you know that NASA can send your name to a moon of Jupiter? Details here!

NASA scientists, however, warn that the presence of carbon dioxide is not enough for life to thrive, since such a complex phenomenon requires an energy source, organic nutrients and a constant supply of organic molecules. The discovery, however, stimulates interest in further study of this mysterious icy moon.

The authors of the work paid special attention to the Taro Regio region on Europa – a harsh terrain rich in ice, where a significant concentration of carbon dioxide was discovered. After studying the data, scientists suggested that substances from the ocean depths likely floated to the surface, carrying vital information about the hidden biosphere of Europe.

Life on Europa. Webb's near-infrared spectrograph determined the presence of carbon dioxide on the surface of Europa. Photo.

Webb's near-infrared spectrograph identified the presence of carbon dioxide on Europa's surface

Samantha Trumbo, a researcher at Cornell University, also believes that carbon dioxide comes from Europa's ocean depths. Let us recall that previous data obtained using the Hubble Space Telescope identified salts of oceanic origin in the same region, further strengthening the idea that carbon, a fundamental element of biological life, likely floated to the surface along with the salts.

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It also appears that jets of water periodically erupt from Europa's ocean. There is still some evidence of the presence of basic chemical elements on the surface, including hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur, which are actively present on Earth. Although Europa boasts three basic ingredients – water, the necessary chemical elements and a heat source – we do not yet know whether life has formed on this world.

What are astronomers looking for on Jupiter's moon?

Among the famous space missions to Jupiter, the Juno probe stands out, which boasts the best instruments for measuring the direction and composition of charged particles on the surface of the satellite. Previously, similar instruments on Saturn and Titan discovered tholins there, a type of organic substance.

During the mission, absorbing ions were also discovered – the atmospheres of the planets consist of neutral particles, but the upper part of the atmosphere becomes «ionized» (that is, loses electrons) when exposed to sunlight and as a result of collisions with other particles, it forms ions (charged atoms that have lost electrons) and free electrons.

What are astronomers looking for on Jupiter's satellite? Organisms unknown to us may live in the subglacial oceans of Europa. Photo.

Organisms unknown to us may live in the subglacial oceans of Europe

More on the topic: NASA's Juno probe found another possible volcano on Jupiter's moon Io

When plasma—a charged gas—the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid and gas—passes the atmosphere with newly formed ions, it disturbs the atmosphere with electric fields that can hasten the creation of new, trapped ions. These ions then spiral around the planet's magnetic field and are typically lost from the atmosphere, while other ions reach the surface.

As scientists have found, Europa also experiences a trapping process. New measurements show clear evidence of the capture of molecular oxygen and hydrogen ions from the surface and atmosphere. Some of them leave Europe, while others end up on the icy surface, increasing the amount of oxygen on and below the surface.

What are astronomers looking for on Jupiter's moon? Astronomers used the Webb telescope to observe Jupiter's icy moon Europa. Photo.

Astronomers used the Webb telescope to observe Jupiter's icy moon Europa

This confirms that oxygen and hydrogen are indeed the main constituents of Europa's atmosphere – according to remote sensing data. However, measurements show that the amount of produced oxygen released by the surface into the atmosphere is lower than previously thought. This suggests that the surface of Jupiter's icy moon is subject to very little erosion.

Thus, Europa is constantly losing oxygen due to absorption processes, and only a small amount of additional oxygen is released from the surface to replenish it and ultimately returns back to the surface, the researchers explain.

But what does all this data tell us about the possible existence of life on Europa? According to scientists, some of the oxygen captured at the surface could end up in the underground ocean and feed any life that exists there. Details and hopefully definitive answers to these and other questions will be revealed by NASA's Europa Clipper mission, which launches later this year, and the Juice mission, which will make two flybys of Europa on its way to Ganymede's orbit. These robotic devices will be able to provide much more information about the suitability of the gas giant's satellite for life.

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Potentially habitable worlds of the solar system

Fortunately, Europa is not the only satellite that astronomers are looking at. The second potentially habitable planet in the solar system is Mars, which means the main mission of the Rosalind Franklin rover (2028) will be to search for microorganisms. Researchers note that life may have originated on Mars at the same time as on Earth, but then disappeared due to climate change.

A third potentially habitable world is Saturn's moon Enceladus. The reason why scientists are showing increased interest in this moon is the results of the Cassini-Huygens mission, which discovered jets of water from the subsurface salty ocean, also in contact with rocks of the ocean floor.

Potentially habitable worlds of the Solar System. There are many potentially habitable planets in the Solar System, which is good news! Photo.

There are many potentially habitable planets in the Solar System, which is good news!

Then comes the majestic Titan with its a dense atmosphere of organic compounds, including hydrocarbons and organic substances – tholins, born in the upper layers of the atmosphere. Then they descend to the surface, covering it with ingredients suitable for the development of life.

We talked more about the study of Titan here, I recommend reading it!