Publication: Oxygen production from dissociation of Europa’s water-ice surface

March 4, 2024

Jupiter’s moon Europa has a predominantly water-ice surface that is modified by exposure to its space environment. Charged particles break molecular bonds in surface ice, thus dissociating the water to ultimately produce H2 and O2, which provides a potential oxygenation mechanism for Europa’s subsurface ocean. These species are understood to form Europa’s primary atmospheric constituents. Although remote observations provide important global constraints on Europa’s atmosphere, the molecular O2 abundance has been inferred from atomic O emissions. Europa’s atmospheric composition had never been directly sampled and model-derived oxygen production estimates ranged over several orders of magnitude. Here, we report direct observations of H2+ and O2+ pickup ions from the dissociation of Europa’s water-ice surface and confirm these species are primary atmospheric constituents. In contrast to expectations, we find the H2 neutral atmosphere is dominated by a non-thermal, escaping population. We find 12 ± 6 kg s-1 (2.2 ± 1.2 × 1026 s-1) O2 are produced within Europa’s surface, less than previously thought, with a narrower range to support habitability in Europa’s ocean. This process is found to be Europa’s dominant exogenic surface erosion mechanism over meteoroid bombardment.

For more information: Published article, NASA Press Release, New York Times article