Europa, Jupiter's Ocean Moon, May Shoot Plumes of Water Into Space

Jupiter's moon Europa harbors a saltwater ocean beneath an icy crust

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has spotted tantalizing signs of such a plume multiple times over the past half decade, but those measurements were near the limits of the powerful instrument's sensitivity.

New research on a sort-of old set of data points toward a water plume on Jupiter's moon Europa.

"These results provide strong independent evidence of the presence of plumes at Europa", they wrote in Nature. And NASA is working on a mission that could do just that.

An enhanced-color view of Jupiter's moon Europa. The 1997 candidate for a water plume was reported to appear in the same general hotspot as previously reported possible plumes - those that occurred in 2014 and 2016.

It is thought to have an iron core, a rocky mantle and a surface ocean of salty water, like Earth. So, many astrobiologists regard Europa as one of the solar system's best bets to host alien life, along with the icy Saturn moon Enceladus, which also features a subsurface ocean.

"The idea that Europa might possess plumes seems to be becoming more and more real, and that's very good news for future exploration", said Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI and the lead author of the new paper on the phenomenon. Now, a new report is helping to cement the idea that jets of water spewing from cracks in the planet's icy shell are a good place to start looking for evidence of life.

In the last several years, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has detected evidence of plumes on Europa, but from afar.

To study the plumes, the probe will not need to pass directly through them.

As suggestive as these results were, they didn't represent a definitive Europa plume discovery, researchers said at the time. Galileo flew by Europa a total of 11 times.

So scientists instead returned to Galileo, which on 16 December 1997 made its closest approach to Europa, flying only 400 kilometers above its surface.

For more information on the plume reported this week, read the paper "Evidence of a plume on Europa from Galileo magnetic and plasma wave signatures" as published by Nature Astronomy.

In addition, "to make sense of the observations, we had to really go for sophisticated numerical modeling" techniques, he told Space.com. So Jia, Kivelson and their colleagues ran the data through a sophisticated modelling program that compared the observations with what scientists might expect to see from a plume of the dimensions reported by Hubble.

The research, headed by University of MI space physicist Xianzhe Jia, was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

While these recent findings are not 100 percent irrefutable, they will help facilitate the two future planned missions to the ice world in 2022 - NASA's Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency's JUICE mission - whose aim is to determine whether the icy moon possesses the ingredients necessary to support life as we know it, or not.

If Galileo already flew within the immediate vicinity of the jets without even trying, NASA could certainly achieve the same feat with a new probe created to specifically to sample the icy plumes in the hunt for microbial life or some other organic proof that something is alive in Europa's depths.

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