Published: Tue, May 15, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest

Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest

The case for Jupiter's moon Europa as one of the best places to look for life beyond Earth just got a new boost from some old data.

A few years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted what looked like water vapor plumes erupting off the icy surface of Europa.

"These results provide strong independent evidence of the presence of plumes at Europa", the study reads. The team also zeroed in on the location of the plume on the moon's surface, which matches up with a "hot spot" that could be explained by warm water making its way up through Europa's icy shell, much like the famed geysers of Yellowstone and elsewhere on Earth.

Researchers are already working on missions to do just that. But scientists think the Jovian satellite harbors a huge amount of liquid water - perhaps twice as much water as Earth does, in fact - in a deep global ocean sloshing beneath the object's ice shell. Subsequent studies revealed the building blocks of life were present in that world's 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. If researchers want to know if some form of life has indeed taken root inside the planet, studying those plumes may be the easiest way to prove it.

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Galileo came much closer during its 11 flybys of Europa.

Verifying the existence of the plumes is therefore of utmost importance and that proof is one step closer to being realised, as a team of researchers from the U.S have reconstructed a plume in 3D based on data taken by the Galileo spacecraft as it skimmed approximately 400 kilometres above the moon's surface in December 1997.

The ongoing debate called for on-site observations, Jia said.

Intriguingly, Jia and his colleagues also determined that the 1997 candidate plume emanated from the same general hotspot (or thermal anomaly) as the 2014 and 2016 phenomena.

Nevertheless, Jia - who was a college student during the flyby - thought that if a plume existed, Galileo might have sensed its signatures with its magnetometer and plasma wave instruments.

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In addition, "to make sense of the observations, we had to really go for sophisticated numerical modeling" techniques, he told Space.com. Over the course of 5 minutes, spikes the spacecraft recorded with its magnetic and plasma sensors reflected the alterations that a veil of ejected water, from one or many vents, could cause in a region matching the telescope observations, they report today in Nature Astronomy.

To find out more the Europa Clipper mission will make over 40 close flybys of the moon's surface, some only tens of kilometers up.

'These findings will help plan future missions to Europa, such as Nasa's Europa Clipper and ESA's Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer spacecraft, both of which are expected to arrive at Jupiter between the late 2020s and early 2030s, ' said a Nature summary.

This NASA-run Jupiter mission Galileo ran from the years 1995 until 2003, and collected loads of invaluable data on our most recognizable galactic cousin.

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