A SIMPLE Perspective on Europa's Habitability

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 4:00 PM
Britney E Schmidt, Georgia Institute of Technology Main Campus, Atlanta, GA, United States
While on the surface, Europa and the Earth may seem very different worlds, below their respective icy crusts, the two share remarkably similar conditions, temperatures, pressures (within a factor of a few) and potentially salinity. Thus the interface between Earth's thick permanent ice shelves and ocean is an important and little explored analog for the physicochemical, and possibly microbial, characteristics of Europa. Here, processes of melt, freeze, and marine ice accretion are controlled by gradients in ice thickness, currents, and ocean temperatures. The details of this process are not well characterized, even on Earth, in particular for the impact these have on the biological potential of these ices. For Europa, such a process may not only provide a habitable niche at ice-ocean interface, but also potentially within the ice shell. In addition, any material formed at the interface may be subject to transport upward through convection or diapirism, potentially delivering ocean-derived materials to the shallow subsurface, participating in an ice "conveyor belt" that will affect the habitability of Europa's ice and ocean alike. In the 2012, 2014 and 2015 austral summer antarctic field seasons, NASA's SIMPLE project (Sub-Ice Marine and PLanetary-analog Ecosystems), has been tasked with characterizing these processes in the McMurdo Ice Shelf, a small ice shelf easily accessible from USAP's McMurdo Station. Using sub-ice vehicles, ice penetrating radar, and other measurements of this unexplored region, the SIMPLE team is building a comprehensive picture of processes at the ice-ocean interface and within the brine-infiltrated ice shelf in order to advance hypotheses for Europa. In addition, the technologies supported by the project are advancing NASA's capabilities to detect processes and properties within ice by ice penetrating radar, and with in situ measurements, that will support Europa Clipper and future landers. The SIMPLE team consists of members from Georgia Tech, Stone Aerospace, University of Illinois, Chicago, University of Texas, Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, and Montana State University. In this presentation, I will describe the project, and results to date, including imaging and preliminary mapping of the conditions within and below the ice shelf from the 2012 and 2014 seasons.