Terraforming of Europa

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Europa's trailing hemisphere in approximate natural color.

The terraforming of Europa is the hypothetical process of boosting the global environment of Europa, changing its climate, surface and other properties to make it habitable for human colonization without the use of a spacesuit. Although recent astronomical studies indicate that this moon has the greatest potential to sustain life, out of all bodies in the Solar System (along with planets Mars and Venus),[1][2] its terraformation presents a challenge: it is near a huge radiation belt around Jupiter,[3] but it is claimed that through the usage of human-made space technology, this radiation could be overcome. There are two major changes required:

In order for essential liquid water, and breathable oxygen, to exist on its surface:

  • There would need to be a considerable percentage of oxygen[4] in the atmosphere (at least Earth's amount, about 21%) (see atmosphere of Earth).
  • The moon would have to be heated to sustain a warm and suitable temperature.
  • The atmospheric pressure would need to be increased.
  • Removal of surplus surface water or water ice.

Reasons for terraforming[edit]

In the future, population growth and demand for resources may create pressure for humans to colonize new habitats such as Mars, the Moon, and nearby planets, as well as harvesting the Solar System's energy and material resources.[5]

In about 5.6 billion years, the Sun is forecasted to move off the main sequence and become a red giant,[6] as the hydrogen fuel in the core is completely consumed, causing the Sun's core to contract and the outer layers to expand. At this point, the Sun's upper atmosphere will extend as far as 1.2 astronomical units (AU), out past the present orbit of the Earth.[7] This expansion will likely destabilize the orbits of the inner planets, causing them to spiral in towards the sun and be destroyed. The Sun will lose a significant fraction of its mass in the process of becoming a red giant, and this may cause a widening of the orbits of the other planets. Earth could theoretically achieve a widening of its orbit and could potentially maintain a sufficiently high angular velocity to keep it from being engulfed. In order to do so, its orbit would need to increase to between 1.3 AU and 1.7 AU.

Although Mars is the most popular candidate for terraforming, even if human colonization of Mars lasts for billions of years, the habitable zone will eventually move beyond Mars, towards Jupiter and its system.[citation needed]

It is theorized that Earth will be outside the habitable zone before the Sun enters its red-giant phase.[7] Astronomers estimate that the Sun will be 33% more luminous three billion years from now. The warming Sun and increased solar radiation would cause the Earth's oceans to evaporate, and the Earth eventually to melt. The habitable zone would move farther out from the Sun.

Even if Europa receives the same gravitational-kinetic and electromagnetic energy as Jupiter,[8] the Sun will be large enough in the distant future for Europa to be habitable.[2]


Two possible models of Europa
"It looks like the ocean could be saturated with oxygen. Given that, it seems unlimited how complex life could be there."
 —Richard Greenberg on the potential for life under Europa's surface.[9]

It has been hypothesized that a water ocean may exist under Europa.[10] If water does indeed exist under the surface, even if frozen, life could also thrive in this profound water, although it may only be microbial and simple.[9][11] Evidence of this life is that sponges, crinoids, scallops, snails, fish and many microorganisms thrive under the ice in the Antarctic area of New Harbor, despite the frigid conditions.

Europa has no magnetic field to protect it from the Jupiter radiation belt, to which it is near. It is suggested that an internal dynamo can be produced through convection (even if Europa is already internally active), though the magnetic field would not need to be stronger than Earth's, for the measurable radiation on Europa is much less than previously predicted (although terraforming the moon would still prove a challenge).[10][12][13] An ozone layer would also be necessary.

Alterations required[edit]

Comparison of dry atmosphere
Europa Earth
Pressure 0.1 μPa (10−12 bar) 101.325 kPa (14.6959 psi)
Carbon dioxide (CO2) 0% 0.04%
Nitrogen (N2) 0% 78.08%
Argon (Ar) 0% 0.93%
Oxygen (O2) 100% 20.95%

Terraforming Europa would entail three major alterations: building up the atmosphere, keeping it warm, and keeping the atmosphere from escaping away into space. The atmosphere of Europa is extremely thin and thus has a very low surface pressure of 0.1 micropascals (1.5×10−11 psi); compared to Earth with 101 kilopascals (15 psi) at sea level and 0.86 kilopascals (0.12 psi) at an altitude of 32 kilometres (20 mi). The atmosphere of Europa consists of mostly molecular oxygen (O2), though not of biological origin, with no other constituents found. Although there was once molecular hydrogen (H2) in the atmosphere, it escaped into space to leave behind oxygen. By comparison, the air on our planet is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and other constituents.

Building the atmosphere[edit]

Although Europa has an atmosphere (revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995), it is a relatively surface bounded exosphere and totally unbreathable. A minimum 0.2 bar partial pressure of oxygen is required for human breathing, though in practice higher total pressure is needed. This could be supplied by breaking the surface ice into its component hydrogen and oxygen, though a suitable sink for the hydrogen will be required.

Introduction of ammonia to the atmosphere[edit]

Another intricate method of terraforming Europa is importing ammonia (NH3) to the atmosphere. Ammonia not only acts as a powerful greenhouse gas that heats the planet for water-based temperatures, but also has high levels of nitrogen, which takes care of the need for a buffer gas in the atmosphere.[14] Part of the ammonia might be imported from Jupiter, Europa's host planet (containing at least 0.026% of ammonia), along with Saturn (0.01% ammonia), Uranus and Neptune (trace amounts of ammonia). It might also be technologically achievable to import ammonia from comets (as they did to Earth) in the asteroid belt, including blowing them up with very large nuclear bombs.

The challenge facing atmosphere builders is the need for a buffer gas. On Earth, nitrogen levels are around 78.08% in the atmosphere, the gas that is the most abundant on Earth. Europa would require a similar buffer gas component to pressurize the surface and regularize cell temperatures.[15] Several inert gases, such as nitrogen, argon or neon, could be utilized as buffer gases, although obtaining sufficient quantities would be difficult.

Introduction of methane to the atmosphere[edit]

Sources of methane in the Solar System include Saturn's moon Titan's lakes and atmosphere, as well as trace amounts from the atmosphere of Mars.[16] Or hydrogen could be converted into methane (because methane is four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom).[16] In this way, methane is used as a boost for a potent greenhouse effect. Methane, and other hydrocarbons, also can be utilized in the increase for the insufficient Europan atmospheric pressure. These gases also can be used for production of water and CO2 for Europa's atmosphere, to initiate plants' photosynthetic processes.

Heating the satellite[edit]

After building the atmosphere, heating the satellite would be an important requirement of terraforming Europa, as heat from the Sun is the primary driver of planetary climate. As the satellite becomes warmer, the CO2 that is frozen into solid form in the Europan north and south poles would sublime into gas and further contribute to a potent greenhouse effect. Heating the satellite would also melt the ice on the surface into liquid form.


Asteroids could be directed onto the Europan surface for their composition, including ammonia[17] (which is a greenhouse gas, as aforementioned, and may have seeded Earth), and because the impacting energy could release heat into the atmosphere. Impacting asteroids on these nitrate beds would release additional nitrogen and thicker oxygen into the satellite's tenuous atmosphere.

Magnetic field and Jupiter radiation belts[edit]

Earth is covered with water (about 70% of Earth's surface) because the ionosphere is permeated with a strong magnetic field.[18] The hydrogen ions present in its ionosphere move very fast due to their small mass, but they cannot escape to outer space because their trajectories are deflected by the magnetic field. Venus has a dense atmosphere, but only traces of water vapor (20 ppm) because it lacks a magnetosphere. The Europan atmosphere also does occasionally lose molecular oxygen (O2) to space.

Earth is provided extra protection from ultraviolet radiation by its ozone layer, which is in the stratosphere. Ultraviolet light is blocked before it can dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Since little water vapor rises above the troposphere and the ozone layer is in the upper stratosphere, little water is dissociated into hydrogen and oxygen.

Europa receives about 540 rem a day[19] (500 is already potentially fatal) from Jupiter's large radiation belts (10 times stronger than Earth's Van Allen radiation belts), and may prove a health threat to colonists. The satellite lacks a magnetosphere, which not only leaves it exposed to radiation by Jupiter, but to the solar wind.

Despite this, an atmosphere engineered to be much denser than Earth's can provide protection from cosmic radiation and Jupiter's radiation, and carefully selected upper-atmospheric components may block UV radiation before it can ionize water.


  1. ^ http://www.orionsarm.com/fm_store/TerraformingVenusQuickly.pdf
  2. ^ a b Deborah Byrd (2009-10-05). "Study shows Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa best suited for microbial life". EarthSky.org. Retrieved 2011-07-04. 
  3. ^ "Jupiter Radiation Belts Harsher Than Expected". ScienceDaily. 2001-03-29. 
  4. ^ "Humans on Europa: A Plan for Colonies on the Icy Moon". Retrieved 2006-04-28. 
  5. ^ "Savage, Marshall T., ''The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps'' (Little Brown and Company, 1994)". Amazon.com. ASIN 0316771635. 
  6. ^ "Post-Main Sequence Stars". Australia Telescope Outreach and Education. 2006-10-12. Retrieved 2011-07-07. 
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  11. ^ Robert Sanders (2007-02-22). "Looking for life on Jupiter's moon Europa". University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 2011-07-04. 
  12. ^ Michael Schirber (2009-01-09). "Hiding from Jupiter's Radiation". Astrobiology Magazine. Retrieved 2011-07-05. 
  13. ^ "Juno Armoured Up to Go to Jupiter". NASA. 2010-07-12. Retrieved 2011-07-05. 
  14. ^ "Life from Outer Space: Meteorites 'could have carried nitrogen to Earth'". Word Press. 2011-03-01. Retrieved 2011-07-07. 
  15. ^ Deng, K.; Guo, T.; He, D. W.; Liu, X. Y.; Liu, L.; Guo, D. Z.; Chen, X. Z.; Wang, Z. (2008 Peking University of Beijing). Effect of buffer gas ratios on the relationship between cell temperature and frequency shifts of the coherent population trapping resonance. "Applied Physics Letters; May 2008". Peking University, Beijing, Applied Physics Letters (Beijing: Peking University). v. 92 (21): 211104–211104–3. Bibcode:2008ApPhL..92u1104D. doi:10.1063/1.2937407. 
  16. ^ a b Azadeh Ansari (2009-01-15). "Methane discovery could mean life on Mars". CNN. Retrieved 2011-07-07. 
  17. ^ Ian Randall (2011-03-01). "Ammonia-rich meteorite may explain life on Earth". Cosmos Magazine. Retrieved 2011-07-10. 
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