Europa water plume: Another step toward living on a moon

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

A new study reveals evidence that Jupiter's icy moon Europa is sending plumes of water into space.

That's particularly exciting because it also suggests that Europa may have an energy source propelling the water skyward.

Long considered to be one of the most promising places to search for alien life in the solar system, Europa is known to have a global ocean containing vastly more water than all of Earth's combined.

For years, scientists suspected Europa vented hot water vapor from an ocean beneath its surface. And while NASA already has plans to explore Europa, this is the most heartening sign of life that planetary scientists have been waiting for.

Flying at 6km (3.7 miles) a second Galileo made its closest ever flyby, shooting across the surface at an altitude of 200km (125 miles) when it detected something unusual.

The photo on the left traces the location of erupting plumes observed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2014 and 2016 (inside the green oval). As claimed by the scientists, this is a typical evidence of water getting generated from a huge water body underneath the moon's frozen crust. This mission would launch in the 2020s and would pass by Europa enough times to (hopefully) detect water plumes with more confidence than ever found before.

During its closest flyby of Europa in 1997, less than 93 miles above the surface, the Galileo craft collected signatures of changes in Europa's magnetic field that the scientists didn't understand, said Margaret Kivelson, study author and professor emerita of space physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft, now scheduled to launch in 2022, is created to fly closer than we've ever gotten to the Jovian moon.


"This wasn't planned out", study author Xianzhe Jia from the University of MI explains to Gizmodo.

In other words, the spacecraft had flown through a localized plume maybe 620 miles wide somewhere near the moon's equator.

This water plume on Europa, if its existence is confirmed, could one day offer a way to obtain, with robots, some samples of the water found under the thick icy crust of the icy moon of Jupiter, in order to analyze them without having to drill an ice crust that could measure kilometers.

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. The final ingredient was the data from Hubble that suggested dimensions of potential plumes. And the density of charged particles surrounding the spacecraft would change as the spacecraft entered, flew through, and then exited the plume. Images of Europa's silhouette cast against the bright clouds of Jupiter showed what looked like water plumes shooting 125 miles into space.

Jia hopes this paper will inspire fellow researchers to keep looking at Europa's plumes. The powerful telescope captured the images of the substance that could be a plume in the year 2003. The mission's primary sponsor in Congress, Representative John Culberson (R-TX), could not his hold back his glee last week in a hearing for a spending bill that supported the mission-breaking the journal's embargo in the process: "The science community has wanted to go there for years, Mr. Chairman", Culberson said, "and this bill makes that happen".

Europa Clipper's instruments will be capable of "sniffing" the atmosphere of Europa, with more than 40 planned flybys.

"Even with our wildest imagination, we always see stuff that we totally did not expect", McGrath says. Galileo flew by Europa a total of 11 times.

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