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Alien oceans hide their secrets in outer ice shells

By analyzing the thickness of ice shells on alien ocean planets, astrobiologists from Cornell University developed a method to estimate their temperatures, a significant step forward in space oceanography.

This innovative technique stems from observations of ice thickness variations on Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, suggesting the potential to apply similar predictions to Europa, a larger moon orbiting Jupiter.

The upcoming NASA mission to Europa aims to survey its ice shell, which could reveal vital information about its capability to support life.

Measuring alien oceans from afar

The cornerstone of this research is a phenomenon dubbed “ice pumping,” observed beneath the ice shelves of Antarctica. The team suggests this process also influences the ice shells of Europa and Enceladus and could extend to Ganymede and Titan, Jupiter and Saturn’s moons, respectively.

The interaction between the ice and ocean, pivotal for the exchange of life-sustaining ingredients, can now be understood by analyzing the ice shell’s slope and the variations in the freezing point of water under different conditions.

Britney Schmidt, an associate professor of astronomy and earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, highlights the significance of this research.

“If we can measure the thickness variation across these ice shells, then we’re able to get temperature constraints on the oceans, which there’s really no other way yet to do without drilling into them,” Schmidt explained.

“This gives us another tool for trying to figure out how these oceans work. And the big question is, are things living there, or could they?”

The Icefin robot: Antarctic explorer used in space research

The findings are detailed in the study “Ice-Ocean Interactions on Ocean Worlds Influence Ice Shell Topography,” published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

Fieldwork in 2019, utilizing the remotely operated Icefin robot beneath Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, provided a direct observation of ice pumping.

These observations helped map potential variations in shell thickness, pressure, and salinity across different ocean worlds.

The measurements reinforced the theory that ice pumping could be a common feature, albeit not universal due to varying gravity and topographical conditions.

Enceladus and Europa’s icy secrets

Justin Lawrence, a visiting scholar at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, points out, “The similarities in ice-ocean interactions on Europa to those beneath the Ross Ice Shelf suggest we might be looking at some of the most Earth-like conditions in these extraterrestrial environments.”

Data from NASA’s Cassini probe already allows predictions about the temperature range of Enceladus’ ocean. This data, combined with the new methodology, offers insights into how heat circulates through these oceans, which is crucial for understanding their habitability.

Interestingly, the research suggests that ice-pumping activity varies significantly between moons. It is expected to be weaker on Enceladus, due to its small size and dramatic topography, while on Europa, the process likely acts more vigorously to smooth the ice shell’s base.

Schmidt also emphasizes the broader implications of this research, highlighting how studying climate change on Earth can enhance our understanding of planetary science.

This connection underscores the importance of interdisciplinary research and the potential insights gained from exploring Earth’s most remote environments.

Enhancing space exploration with climate science

In summary, Cornell University astrobiologists have made a significant advancement in the field of extraterrestrial oceanography by developing a method to estimate the alien ocean temperatures of distant worlds. They accomplish this by analyzing the thickness of their ice shells.

This novel approach, inspired by observations of ice pumping beneath Antarctica’s ice shelves, offers a unique tool for probing the mysterious oceans of moons like Enceladus and Europa, potentially unlocking secrets about their habitability and the existence of life.

By leveraging data from space missions and Earth-based research, this study enhances our understanding of these alien oceans while demonstrating the interconnectedness of planetary science and climate research.

Discovering and exploring alien oceans

As discussed above, the discovery of alien ocean worlds marks a groundbreaking achievement. Scientists, utilizing advanced telescopes and space probes, have unveiled the presence of vast oceans beneath the icy surfaces of moons and dwarf planets within our solar system and beyond. This revelation expands our understanding of the cosmos and ignites speculation about the potential for extraterrestrial life.

Tools of exploration

The journey to uncover these hidden oceans began with meticulous observations and analyses by multiple space agencies.

Astronomers, employing the Hubble Space Telescope and other observational platforms, detected signs of water vapor plumes erupting from the icy crusts of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

These observations suggested the existence of subsurface oceans, kept liquid by the gravitational pull of their parent planets.

Probing the depths

Space agencies launched missions specifically designed to investigate these ocean worlds. Probes equipped with cutting-edge instruments flew by, orbited, or landed on these celestial bodies, collecting data that confirmed the presence of salty, liquid water oceans beneath their frozen exteriors.

The Cassini spacecraft, for example, provided compelling evidence of hydrothermal activity on Enceladus, further hinting at the moon’s habitability.

The search for life in alien oceans

The discovery of alien ocean worlds has profound implications for the search for extraterrestrial life. Scientists postulate that these hidden oceans could harbor microbial life forms, thriving in environments similar to Earth’s deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

Research and exploration efforts have intensified, with future missions planned to directly sample the ocean water and analyze it for signs of life.

New frontier in space exploration

The identification of ocean worlds beyond Earth challenges our understanding of where life can exist in the universe. It opens up a new frontier in space exploration, focusing on the potential habitability of moons and dwarf planets.

As technology advances, the prospect of discovering life in these alien oceans grows, bringing us closer to answering the age-old question: Are we alone in the universe?

In summary, the discovery of alien oceans represents a significant leap forward in our quest to understand the cosmos. As we continue to probe these mysterious worlds, we edge closer to uncovering the secrets they hold and the possibilities they present for the future of space exploration.

The full study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets.


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