Skip navigation

Astrobiology at the Water-Rock Interface and Beyond!

Figure 3-1.
Organization of research by the Icy Worlds team.

What Is Astrobiology?

Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Astrobiologists address three fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?

Icy moons in our solar system are some of the places astrobiologists are studying to search for signs of life beyond Earth.

Astrobiology at water-rock interfaces found on icy bodies such as Europa and Enceladus, is the unifying theme of the JPL Icy Worlds team. Several of the icy moons in our Solar System have subsurface oceans that, combined, contain many times the volume of liquid water on Earth. All of these icy worlds may host or may have once hosted water-rock interfaces generating energy from geochemical gradients.

This vast quantity of liquid water raises the most compelling question in astrobiology:

How can geochemical disequillibra drive the emergence of metabolism and ultimately generate observable signatures on icy worlds?

The NAI JPL team is pursuing an interdisciplinary and highly synergistic combination of experimental, theoretical, and field-based lines of inquiry focused on answering this very question. NASA explored the Universe to reveal its self-organizing machinery, from the first ripples of inflation to black holes, to the moons orbiting the larger planets in our own Solar System. Yet the most complex of all self-organizing entropy-generating systems, life, is still only recognized here on our Earth.

The JPL Icy Worlds team intends to demonstrate how the particular physical and chemical gradients operating at the rock-water interfaces in icy world oceans can drive the chemistry that leads to early metabolic pathways. With this knowledge, coupled with an understanding of the thermal, tidal and chemical disequilibria prevailing on icy worlds, it will be possible to make informed predictions as to their habitability or otherwise. This pioneering knowledge will feed into the development of mission concepts such as Europa Clipper and the LIFE sample return mission to Enceladus.

The JPL teams consists of an interdisciplinary team of researchers who will be working together to examine bio-geochemical/- geophysical interactions taking place between rock/water/ice interfaces in these environments to better understand and constrain the many ways in which icy worlds may provide habitable niches and how we may be able to identify them. In order to organize their approach to addressing the single compelling question stated above, the proposed research is structured around answering four key questions, each of which provides the focus of one of four detailed science investigations. Click on Research in the navigation panel to read more about them.