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06/03/1999 07:00:00

Lack of Energy Makes Life on Europa Unlikely, Caltech Study Concludes

Embargoed for Release at 3 p.m. Thursday, June 3, 1999

PASADENA—Future space travelers to the watery Jovian moon Europa should probably leave their fishing tackle at home. A new study conducted by California Institute of Technology and Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists shows that the Europan ocean is unlikely to harbor any life form more complex than single-celled organisms—and maybe not even that.

In this week's issue of the journal Science, Caltech geobiologist Eric Gaidos and coauthors Kenneth Nealson and Joseph Kirschvink show that nearly all forms of energy used by life on the Earth are unavailable to the organisms that might live beneath Europa's surface ice layer.

According to Gaidos, "One must be careful when doing comparative planetology. It is not a safe assumption to use Earth as an analogy. A liquid-water ocean on Europa does not necessarily mean there is life there."

On Earth, chemical energy is derived either from sunlight by means of photosynthesis or from the oxygen that is a byproduct. This oxygen reaches even the exotic animals inhabiting the super-hot volcanic vents in the deep sea that were discovered 20 years ago.

Even for the organisms living under ice sheets on Earth, the system is not closed. Energy from outside is available for the organisms underneath.

Unlike Earth, Europa is a closed system. The ice layer cannot be penetrated by sunlight and the only available energy in the system comes from within. This study shows that the energy available is very small compared to levels used by organisms on the Earth. It seems very unlikely that multicellular life could survive, and the lack of energy puts constraints on the likelihood of finding even hardy single-celled organisms.

Gaidos uses the analogy of an energy waterfall. "Chemical energy is falling from a high state to a low state just as water falls due to gravity. Life acts as a waterwheel in this process and harnesses the energy. However, without a source of chemical energy, the waterwheel stops."

Kirschvink adds, "Earth has a lot of metabolic energy available for life, but if you shut off the source, you shut off the system."

The study doesn't completely rule out the possibility of life, however. Gaidos says the study "assumes that the life we look for is based on the same energy sources used by life on Earth.

"The study puts limits on what life is possible," says Gaidos. "Complex life is very unlikely, but there are other possible alternatives for simple organisms to acquire the necessary energy."

One such possibility is that the organisms derive the necessary biochemical energy from oxidized iron (rust) that may exist under the ice. Other possibilities may exist, so long as there is a source of energy and life can insert its waterwheel at some point in the system.

"But we are talking about very simple organisms that can live on these energy sources. These are not multicellular creatures," Gaidos says.

Only the future will reveal what scientists might find under the ice of Europa. But we do know that no fish will be biting.

Written by Robert Tindol