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The global ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa contains about twice the liquid water of all the Earth’s oceans combined. New research by Richard Greenberg of the University of Arizona suggests that there may be plenty of oxygen available in that ocean to support life, a hundred times more oxygen than previously estimated.
The chances for life there have been uncertain, because Europa’s ocean lies beneath several miles of ice, which separates it from the production of oxygen at the surface by energetic charged particles (similar to cosmic rays). Without oxygen, life could conceivably exist at hot springs in the ocean floor using exotic metabolic chemistries, based on sulfur or the production of methane. However, it is not certain whether the ocean floor actually would provide the conditions for such life.
Greenberg says that the concentrations of oxygen would be great enough to support not only microorganisms, but also “macrofauna”, that is, more complex animal-like organisms which have greater oxygen demands. The continual supply of oxygen could support roughly 3 billion kilograms of macrofauna, assuming similar oxygen demands to terrestrial fish.
Richard Greenberg is the author of the recent book “Unmasking Europa: The Search for Life on Jupiter’s Ocean Moon.” He presented his findings at the 41st meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.