Jupiter's moon Europa could harbour life, hints water plumes shooting into space


Space scientists announced on Monday (May 14, 2018) that a reanalysis of data collected by the Galileo spacecraft in 1997 corroborates earlier suggestions that Jupiter's moon Europa might be venting plumes of water vapor. The information gives autonomous confirmation that the moon's subsurface fluid water repository might vent crest of water vapor over its cold shell.

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.

This is exciting news for astrobiologists: If the plume is indeed real, it could offer a way for a spacecraft to sample Europa's buried ocean of liquid water without even touching down on the moon.

According to a study released a year ago, the Hubble Space Telescope showed a water plume erupting on the warmest part of the surface of Europa, whose ocean contains twice as much water as Earth's seas.

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 odd. But the discovery raises even more questions than it answers-and it may be a while before scientists can answer those questions, since they'll need to wait for a new spacecraft to reach the moon.

The Article from Best Evidence of water plume on Jupiter.

Data collected by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1997 were put through new and advanced computer models to untangle a mystery - a brief, localized bend in the magnetic field - that had gone unexplained until now. Both of these observations provide strong evidence of a plume, Jia said.

There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa.

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The latest findings are great news for future space exploration missions, especially for the Europa Clipper mission and the European Space Agency's Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), which are expected in the mid-2020s. The experiments showed Europa possesses an atmosphere.

Galileo came much closer during its 11 flybys of Europa.

In those years, the Galileo spacecraft made eleven flybys of Europa, including one which brought it within a few hundred kilometers of the moon's surface. "It's unlikely that one of these plumes is going to throw a fish into space that's going to whack into Europa Clipper", Cynthia Phillips of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory tells Drake.

The find has big implications for the Europa Clipper, a probe now under development by NASA and expected to launch in the early 2020s.

And if plumes erupt like geysers, "there may be ways for that material from the ocean to come out above that ice shell and that means we would be able to sample it", she said. That makes it one of the most enticing worlds in our solar system where life could be hiding.

The researchers initially suspected Europa's surface to be releasing water by seeing the images received with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope.

But the sensitivity of telescopic data is limited, and more was needed to be sure that these were really plumes, the researchers said.

'If we can collect a sample of the water, we may determine whether microbial life exists, how it evolved, and how it continues to live in this cold environment with no connection to the atmosphere'. Computer simulations created by Xianzhe Jia, a space scientist at the University of MI, showed that a 120-mile-high geyser erupting from a relatively warm patch on Europa would create precisely the same readings. This would allow scientists a first look at the material inside Europa's ocean that's spewing through the icy crust and revealing whether Europa's ocean is habitable and supports life. That's the big picture.