Europa as an abode of life

Christopher F. Chyba, Cynthia B. Phillips

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations

Abstract

Life as we know it on Earth depends on liquid water, a suite of 'biogenic' elements (most famously carbon) and a useful source of free energy. Here we review Europa's suitability for life from the perspective of these three requirements. It is likely, though not yet certain, that Europa harbors a subsurface ocean of liquid water whose volume is about twice that of Earth's oceans. Little is known about Europa's inventory of carbon, nitrogen, and other biogenic elements, but lower bounds on these can be placed by considering the role of cometary delivery over Europa's history. Sources of free energy are challenging for a world covered with an ice layer kilometers thick, but it is possible that hydrothermal activity and/or organics and oxidants provided by the action of radiation chemistry at Europa's surface and subsequent mixing into Europa's ocean could provide the electron donors and acceptors needed to power a Europan ecosystem. It is not premature to draw lessons from the search for life on Mars with the Viking spacecraft for planning exobiological missions to Europa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-67
Number of pages21
JournalOrigins of life and evolution of the biosphere
Volume32
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2002
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Space and Planetary Science

Keywords

  • Astrobiology
  • Europa
  • Exobiology
  • Jupiter
  • Oceans
  • Radiation

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