Transport Rates of Radiolytic Substances into Europa's Ocean: Implications for the Potential Origin and Maintenance of Life
Bombardment of the surface of Europa produces oxidants and other biologically useful substances, but they can only contribute to the habitability of the ocean if they are delivered down through the icy crust. Previous estimates of the thickness of the oxygenated layer of ice assumed that impact gardening is the dominant factor and concluded that the ocean may be habitable if the oxidant delivery time, via undefined mechanisms, is sufficiently short. Consideration of the types of processes that continually resurface Europa suggests that the oxygenated layer is thicker than ∼300 m, far greater than the few meters indicated by impact gardening alone, and possibly includes the entire ice crust. The estimated delivery rate to the ocean is such that the oxygen levels could now be high enough to support macrofauna; and, at ∼3 × 1011 mol/yr of oxygen, it could maintain 3 million tons of macrofauna, assuming respiration rates similar to terrestrial marine organisms. These values are independent of any additional contributions due to possible photosynthesis. Initial formation of life would be difficult with so much oxygen, but the start of oxidant delivery into the ocean would have been delayed by 1-2 billion years while the crust became loaded with oxidants. In the ocean, this delay would have allowed time for prebiotic assemblages and anaerobic biological development prior to the increasing oxidant concentration to otherwise toxic levels.