Europa
Artist concept of view from Europa's surface.NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jupiter's icy moon Europa – on which scientists believe is the best chance of finding alien life – has plate tectonics like Earth, researchers believe.

According to a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, Europa may have an active system of plate tectonics that shift in the same way that Earth's do.

Researchers believe a plate tectonic system moves old portions of the moon's surface beneath adjacent plates.

Lead author Simon Kattenhorn, from the University of Idaho, told ABC: "We see areas where cracks have opened and new material has come up from underneath the ice, creating new surface areas. And, unless the moon is expanding which we don't think is the case, you have to remove surface from somewhere else in order to accommodate the new surface area being created."

Researchers examined images from Nasa's 1989 Galileo mission, which orbited Jupiter's system until 2003. "The surface of Europa is covered in ancient geological features which [we think] are older than the subduction zones and plate boundaries we identified," he said.

"We were able to reconstruct the original pattern of these features like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, matching the geology patterns. You could see that rigid portions of the surface had been rearranged like tectonic plates."

Europa Moon Jupiter
Jupiter's moon Europa may harbour intelligent life in its subsurface oceansNasa

According to Nature Magazine, such geological activity would suggest that the moon's icy surface is connected to a buried ocean, which would provide a possible pathway for salts, minerals and a potentially habitable environment where life could get from the warmer ocean to the surface and back again.

"By habitable, we mean a place that has the ingredients for life, water, chemistry and energy. We know materials on the surface are being chemically altered by Jupiter's radiation, so those compounds generated at the surface could be moved back down into the subsurface.

"Astrobiologists would potentially find this quite interesting, and would want to think about its ramifications."

Currently, Nasa is hesitant to launch a mission to Europa because of the cost, however Texas Congressman John Culberson – who holds a great deal of spending power – is currently pushing for missions to Jupiter's moon.

Commenting on the possibility of a Europa mission Kattenhorn said: "I'm frothing at the mouth in excitement. There is clearly so much more that we still need to learn about Europa."