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Astrobiology. 2007 Dec;7(6):1006-22. doi: 10.1089/ast.2007.0156.

Energy, chemical disequilibrium, and geological constraints on Europa.

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Department of Geological & Environmental Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA.


Europa is a prime target for astrobiology. The presence of a global subsurface liquid water ocean and a composition likely to contain a suite of biogenic elements make it a compelling world in the search for a second origin of life. Critical to these factors, however, may be the availability of energy for biological processes on Europa. We have examined the production and availability of oxidants and carbon-containing reductants on Europa to better understand the habitability of the subsurface ocean. Data from the Galileo Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer were used to constrain the surface abundance of CO(2) to 0.036% by number relative to water. Laboratory results indicate that radiolytically processed CO(2)-rich ices yield CO and H(2)CO(3); the reductants H(2)CO, CH(3)OH, and CH(4) are at most minor species. We analyzed chemical sources and sinks and concluded that the radiolytically processed surface of Europa could serve to maintain an oxidized ocean even if the surface oxidants (O(2), H(2)O(2), CO(2), SO(2), and SO(4) (2)) are delivered only once every approximately 0.5 Gyr. If delivery periods are comparable to the observed surface age (30-70 Myr), then Europa's ocean could reach O(2) concentrations comparable to those found in terrestrial surface waters, even if approximately 10(9) moles yr(1) of hydrothermally delivered reductants consume most of the oxidant flux. Such an ocean would be energetically hospitable for terrestrial marine macrofauna. The availability of reductants could be the limiting factor for biologically useful chemical energy on Europa.

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