NASA’s Webb Finds Carbon Source on Surface of Jupiter’s Moon Europa
Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of a handful of worlds in our solar system that could potentially harbor conditions suitable for life. Previous research has shown that beneath its water-ice crust lies a salty ocean of liquid water with a rocky seafloor. However, planetary scientists had not confirmed if that ocean contained the chemicals needed for life, particularly carbon.
Astronomers using data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have identified carbon dioxide in a specific region on the icy surface of Europa. Analysis indicates that this carbon likely originated in the subsurface ocean and was not delivered by meteorites or other external sources. Moreover, it was deposited on a geologically recent timescale. This discovery has important implications for the potential habitability of Europa’s ocean.
“On Earth, life likes chemical diversity – the more diversity, the better. We’re carbon-based life. Understanding the chemistry of Europa’s ocean will help us determine whether it’s hostile to life as we know it, or if it might be a good place for life,” said Geronimo Villanueva of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, lead author of one of two independent papers describing the findings.
“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,” added Samantha Trumbo of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, lead author of the second paper analyzing these data.
NASA plans to launch its Europa Clipper spacecraft, which will perform dozens of close flybys of Europa to further investigate whether it could have conditions suitable for life, in October 2024.
A Surface-Ocean Connection
Webb finds that on Europa’s surface, carbon dioxide is most abundant in a region called Tara Regio – a geologically young area of generally resurfaced terrain known as “chaos terrain.” The surface ice has been disrupted, and there likely has been an exchange of material between the subsurface ocean and the icy surface.
“Previous observations from the Hubble Space Telescope show evidence for ocean-derived salt in Tara Regio,” explained Trumbo. “Now we’re seeing that carbon dioxide is heavily concentrated there as well. We think this implies that the carbon probably has its ultimate origin in the internal ocean.”
“Scientists are debating how much Europa’s ocean connects to its surface. I think that question has been a big driver of Europa exploration,” said Villanueva. “This suggests that we may be able to learn some basic things about the ocean’s composition even before we drill through the ice to get the full picture.”
Both teams identified the carbon dioxide using data from the integral field unit of Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec). This instrument mode provides spectra with a resolution of 200 x 200 miles (320 x 320 kilometers) on the surface of Europa, which has a diameter of 1,944 miles, allowing astronomers to determine where specific chemicals are located.
Carbon dioxide isn’t stable on Europa’s surface. Therefore, the scientists say it’s likely that it was supplied on a geologically recent timescale – a conclusion bolstered by its concentration in a region of young terrain.
“These observations only took a few minutes of the observatory’s time,” said Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, a Webb interdisciplinary scientist leading Webb’s Cycle 1 Guaranteed Time Observations of the solar system. “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.”
Searching for a Plume
Villanueva’s team also looked for evidence of a plume of water vapor erupting from Europa’s surface. Researchers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reported tentative detections of plumes in 2013, 2016, and 2017. However, finding definitive proof has been difficult.
The new Webb data shows no evidence of plume activity, which allowed Villanueva’s team to set a strict upper limit on the rate of material potentially being ejected. The team stressed, however, that their non-detection does not rule out a plume.
“There is always a possibility that these plumes are variable and that you can only see them at certain times. All we can say with 100% confidence is that we did not detect a plume at Europa when we made these observations with Webb,” said Hammel.
These findings may help inform NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, as well as ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) upcoming Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE).
James Webb Space Telescope sees early galaxies defying 'cosmic rulebook' of star formation
The greatest puzzle in cosmology just got even more puzzling.
Images from the James Webb Space Telescope have confirmed that the universe appears to be expanding significantly faster than it should be, researchers report in a study accepted in the Astrophysical Journal. The observation is in conflict with an esteemed theory, the standard model of cosmology, that describes how the universe has evolved since the first moments after the Big Bang.
The conflict comes down to calculations of the Hubble constant, a number that describes how fast everything in the universe is flying apart. One calculation, based on Planck satellite observations of the oldest light in the universe in conjunction with the standard model of cosmology, suggests the Hubble constant is 67.4 kilometers per second per megaparsec (a megaparsec is about 3 million light-years). Hubble Space Telescope images of stars at various distances from us provide a fundamentally incompatible value — 73 kilometers per second per megaparsec.
The discrepancy is known as the Hubble tension, and new JWST data hasn’t done anything to ease it (SN: 7/30/19). The telescope took images of the same stars as the Hubble telescope and calculated a very similar Hubble constant. Although the Planck number disagrees from the Hubble telescope and JWST number by less than 10 percent, the discrepancy in the measurements implies that there’s something terribly wrong with our understanding of the universe. Unless an error turns up in one of the measurements, it will take strange new physics to explain the tension.
“Papers in the literature over the last 10 years have invoked anything from weird dark matter to weird dark energy, to another [exotic] particle, to a magnetic field in the early universe to a new field, all kinds of things” to explain the Hubble tension, says cosmologist Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University.
Some of these explanations “look semi-successful, some of them look like failures, some of them would cause other problems,” he says. Developing a theory that might resolve the tension “is still very much in the skunkworks [or extremely speculative] stage of trying to understand what [the tension] could mean.”
JWST looks to the stars to calculate the Hubble constant
With the Hubble telescope and JWST, astronomers calculate the Hubble constant by observing flashing stars known as Cepheid variables. The stars flare up periodically at rates that indicate how much light they’re putting out. Comparing a star’s brightness in telescope images with its expected brightness, based on the flare-up rates, gives a measure of the distance to the stars. Shifts in the color of the light coming from the stars reveal how fast they’re moving. Combining distance and speed observations of Cepheid stars leads to a measure of the expansion of the universe.
But Cepheid variable stars tend to sit deep inside galaxies, surrounded by crowds of other stars. That can make it difficult to get good measurements of the Cepheids’ speeds and locations. One simple resolution for the Hubble tension could have been that the Hubble telescope measurements were simply off.
Enter JWST, which can peer through the stellar crowds to clearly make out the color and brightness of Cepheid variables. The higher-resolution JWST images provide data with dramatically lower uncertainties and reduced confusion with nearby stars than the Hubble telescope could manage. The result: The Hubble telescope measurements have been right all along, Riess and colleagues report in their new paper.
This study alone isn’t enough to convince astronomer Wendy Freedman of the University of Chicago. The two galaxies studied are comparatively close to us, on cosmic scales, with the farthest one about 75 million light-years away, she notes. The relative proximity makes it easier to pick out the Cepheids from the stellar crowds. Freedman suspects it will be harder to distinguish Cepheids from the crowds of surrounding stars in more distant galaxies, even with JWST.
“The problem is only going to be worse,” Freedman says. “Because the resolution, it gets worse as you go to a higher distance.” For very distant galaxies, she suspects, stars could appear too close together to pick out the Cepheids from neighboring stars, even for JWST. As a result, Freedman says that Riess’ confirmation of the higher Hubble constant may crumble with analysis of more distant Cepheids.
JWST’s images leave the Hubble tension untouched
Hints that the measurements might hold up at larger distances arose in a Sept. 12 presentation at a conference in Baltimore dedicated to the first year of JWST science. Riess showed preliminary Cepheid data from four more galaxies. One of them is 140 million light-years away — among the most distant galaxies in the Hubble telescope Cepheid studies. JWST data from those stars also line up with the Hubble telescope measurements. Although still awaiting peer review, the images strongly suggest that the JWST has indeed overcome the uncertainties that resulted when light from Cepheids got mixed up with light from nearby stars in the lower resolution Hubble telescope images.
University of Cambridge astrophysicist George Efstathiou, who was not involved in the study, is both convinced that Riess has gotten the measurements right and confounded by the implications. “When they showed me all of that [data],” Efstathiou says, “my reaction was, ‘Well, you know, I’m stumped.’”
Efstathiou is a member of the Planck satellite collaboration, which studied the oldest light in the universe, called the cosmic microwave background, and found the lower value for the expansion of the universe. The satellite’s calculation is based on images of the patterns in light from the early universe. Together with the standard model of cosmology, the images show that the universe is expanding with a Hubble constant that’s lower than the JWST measurement by about 5.6 kilometers per second per megaparsec.
As it stands, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the Planck measurement of the Hubble constant or with the JWST observations. The tension between the measurements points a finger at the standard model of cosmology as the problem. But the standard model also appears to be unimpeachable; it’s withstood numerous other challenges without breaking down. The model came about in part due to the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, which earned Riess and others a Nobel Prize in physics (SN: 10/4/11). The revelation was a key piece in shaping the model to include dark matter, dark energy and other factors, making it the simplest theory that can accurately describe the universe.
Now, though, Riess’ Cepheid-based studies of the Hubble constant show that there’s still more to learn.
“This is a crack, or a surprise that doesn’t fit,” Riess says. “It’s left us more in a kind of confused or purgatory state.” The implication, he says, is “there’s a problem with the standard model. You can revise it, but we don’t know how to revise it, which direction or in what way.”
People shouldn’t mistake the tension over the Hubble tension as despair. “It’s more of an opportunity to learn something about the universe with these telescopes,” Riess says.
One possibility is completely new physics.
“If there’s new physics, that’d be fun,” Freedman says. “We’d all like to see something new and interesting…. Either way, I think it’s going to be an exciting result — either confirming the [standard] model or showing that there’s something still in the model that’s missing.”
Supernova in James Webb Space Telescope image could help solve one of the universe's biggest mysteries