Exploring Ocean Worlds: Ocean System Science to Support the Search for Life

Lead PI: Andreas M. Thurnherr

Unit Affiliation: Ocean and Climate Physics, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

August 2019 - August 2024
Global ; Icy moons in our solar system
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: The primary goal of this project is to blend expertise in astrobiology, oceanography and planetary science in a theory-led investigation, backed up with judicious use of experiments, that prepares the way for future missions to explore ocean worlds for life. Anticipating that geophysical and geochemical differences among ocean worlds will lead to a corresponding diversity in both an ocean world’s biological potential (the abundance and productivity of life that it has the capacity to support) and its biosignature potential (the nature and abundance of evidence for life that is manifest), we ask: On which ocean worlds, with what measurements, will we have the greatest potential to successfully detect the presence of life? Our objectives are:

1: Quantify the dependence of biological potential and biosignature potential on physical &
(bio)geochemical processes.

2: Identify which observable features would be most powerfully diagnostic of the processes
that determine biological and biosignature potential.

Our team will address these objectives by constructing a comprehensive theoretical framework—one that is informed and tested by experimental efforts—that connects the broad spectrum of physical and chemical processes likely governing flows of material and energy within an ocean system to determine the biological and biosignature potential of that world. We will focus exclusively on ocean worlds where liquid water oceans are in contact with an underlying rocky seafloor because our experience here on Earth has repeatedly shown that sub-seafloor fluid flow presents the best conditions to release chemical energy stored in geologic formations.

Our approach is designed to provide a predictive framework applicable to all ocean worlds of this type, but will have clear, immediate and direct relevance to two high priority astrobiology targets: Europa and Enceladus.

Throughout the project, theoretical modelers will work closely with experimentalists to identify key processes and conditions that contribute to the system-wide function and evolution of ocean worlds.

Ultimately, we hope to answer a single, overarching question: On which ocean worlds, and with what measurements, will we have the greatest potential to successfully detect the presence of life?




Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution




ocean dynamics ocean circulation


Earth fundamentals