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Europa, a small moon orbiting Jupiter, has long attracted fascination because of its potential to host alien life.
Hidden below the moon’s frozen surface is thought to be an ocean, which could hold signs of life. It turns out scientists won’t have to dig too far to find this potential evidence in a future mission, according to a study published in Nature.
Led by NASA scientist Tom Nordheim, the study assessed how harsh the radiation is on Europa’s surface.
The intense radiation, which comes from Jupiter, destroys or modifies material on the moon’s surface, making it hard for researchers to ascertain if it’s reflective of what can be found in the ocean below.
Nordheim and his team discovered that the radiation on the surface was at its most intense around the moon’s equator, tapering out towards the poles.
Below the surface, the radiation penetrates 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) in the most intense areas, but goes down to less than 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) at the mildest areas.
In order to understand how radiation could impact evidence of life on Europa, the study looked at the destruction of amino acids on the moon, which proteins are made of.
“This is the first prediction of radiation levels at each point on Europa’s surface and is important information for future Europa missions,” Chris Paranicas, the study’s co-author, said in a blog post on NASA’s website.
It’s important information for future Europa missions, whether in orbit or landing on the moon’s surface.
“The radiation that bombards Europa’s surface leaves a fingerprint,” Kevin Hand, a co-author of the study, added.
“If we know what that fingerprint looks like, we can better understand the nature of any organics and possible biosignatures that might be detected with future missions, be they spacecraft that fly by or land on Europa.”