The James Webb Space Telescope, operated in Baltimore, has discovered carbon on the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, the Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA said Thursday.
Carbon is the chemical element considered the building block for life as we know it, and Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s moons, has long been seen by astronomers as a potential location for extraterrestrial life because of its suspected subsurface ocean of liquid water. However, until today’s announcement, scientists had not been able to confirm whether the planet contained carbon.
Astronomers using the Webb telescope’s near-infrared spectrograph found abundant carbon dioxide in Tara Regio, a region of the moon where surface ice has been disrupted.
“We now think that we have observational evidence that the carbon we see on Europa’s surface came from the ocean. That’s not a trivial thing. Carbon is a biologically essential element,” said Samantha Trumbo of Cornell University, lead author of a paper analyzing the telescope’s data.
Earlier observations using the Hubble Space Telescope showed salt from the subsurface ocean in the Tara Regio region, Trumbo said in a news release. The carbon dioxide concentrated there “implies that the carbon probably has its ultimate origin in the internal ocean.”
To be clear, this is not an announcement that astronomers have found life on Europa. But the discovery has important implications for the potential habitability of Europa’s ocean, NASA said. As scientists learn more about the chemical makeup of the ocean, they will gain a better idea of whether it’s hospitable to life as we understand it.
NASA is planning to launch Europa Clipper, a solar-powered satellite, next year to observe the icy moon. Clipper will orbit Jupiter and make nearly 50 flybys, collecting data on the moon’s icy surface and the ocean beneath it. The European Space Agency launched its Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (called “Juice”) earlier this year, which will also collect data from Europa.
Researchers are excited not just because of the discovery, but because of how it was made. The observations required to detect carbon on Europa only took “a few minutes,” said Heidi Hammel, a scientist leading some of Webb’s work.
“Even with this short period of time, we were able to do really big science. This work gives a first hint of all the amazing solar system science we’ll be able to do with Webb,” she said in a statement.