Europa life
Image Credit: NASA

Jupiter’s Moon Europa Remains Compelling in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. Here’s Why.

Jupiter’s moon Europa has long remained promising in the search for life beyond Earth. Its icy surface and the potential for a subsurface ocean have tantalized scientists and the public alike, allowing us to speculate that it could be teeming with life forms.

However, recent research has introduced a new twist in the narrative regarding Europa’s habitability. In a new study, James Szalay of Princeton University, and his team have found that the production of oxygen on Europa, a critical ingredient for life as we know it, may be less than previously estimated.

The new revelations, derived from data collected by the Juno spacecraft, suggest a narrower window for the habitability of Europa’s ocean, potentially dampening hopes of finding life there.

Published in Nature Astronomy, Szalay and his team’s study utilized direct observations of hydrogen and oxygen ions produced from the dissociation of water molecules on Europa’s surface. This process, driven by the moon’s interaction with charged particles from Jupiter’s magnetosphere, is thought to be a key mechanism for oxygenating Europa’s subsurface ocean.

Earlier estimates suggested that Europa’s surface produced over 2000 pounds of oxygen per second, but this recent flyby seems to indicate it is somewhere between 13 and 39 pounds. This reduced rate of oxygen production suggests that the conditions necessary to support life in Europa’s ocean may be more limited than previously thought.

Yet despite the recent findings, arguably the alien moon will continue to live on in our imaginations, and in our science fiction, giving us hope that perhaps we aren’t alone in our solar system. 

Europa: Alien Moon of the Human Imagination

Europa’s appeal as a candidate for hosting extraterrestrial life is not solely based on scientific findings. Science fiction has played a significant role in shaping the public’s fascination with this icy moon. From Arthur C. Clarke’s “2010: Odyssey Two” to the film “Europa Report,” fictional narratives have explored the possibility of life beneath Europa’s icy crust, fueling interest and speculation about what might lie beneath its surface.

Despite the potentially limiting new findings of Szalay’s oxygen study, Europa remains a prime target in the search for life beyond Earth. Europa is believed to have a vast ocean beneath its icy surface. The existence of liquid water is a key ingredient for life as we know it, and Europa’s subsurface ocean is estimated to contain twice as much water as all of Earth’s oceans combined. 

And where there is water, there is chemistry. If that subsurface ocean is in contact with a rocky mantle, the water could be undergoing chemical reactions that produce energy. And if middle school science has taught us anything, it’s that chemistry and energy are key for life.

Moreover, Europa’s surface is bombarded by radiation from Jupiter’s magnetosphere, which could provide energy in the form of chemical nutrients through a process called radiolysis. This process breaks down water ice on the surface and could create oxidants that might seep into the ocean below. Mix this with the geophysical activity of the moon, the constant swirling of water, oxygen, and energy could create a nicely habitable environment for some really simple organic compounds, or perhaps a form of bacteria, or maybe even something bigger.

Upcoming missions, such as NASA’s Europa Clipper, are set to further explore Europa, offering hope that we may yet uncover the secrets of this enigmatic moon. So don’t let this little oxygen news (pun intended) get you down. Europa is still very worthy of our dreams of finding life out there, so breathe easy.

MJ Banias is a journalist who covers security and technology. He is the host of The Debrief Weekly Report. You can email MJ at or follow him on Twitter @mjbanias.