Jupiter's Moon Europa Shoots Water Into Space, New Research Suggests

May 15, 2018, 22:20
Jupiter's Moon Europa Shoots Water Into Space, New Research Suggests

Although Jupiter's icy moon Europa was discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610, astronomers are still uncovering the secrets beneath its frozen crust.

The researchers initially suspected Europa's surface to be releasing water by seeing the images received with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope. "Just because it's a plume, they haven't yet demonstrated that it comes from an ocean", Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist at the Space Science Institute in Colorado who wasn't involved in the new research, told Newsweek. The finding led the team to believe that when the orbiter flew just 200 kilometers above the moon during the close flyby it was accidentally grazing through a plume erupting from it.

The researchers also reproduced the Galileo probe's trajectory around Europa to depict the water plume of Europa which corresponded with the before-determined thermal abnormality.

Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI, created new 3D computer models to look at the old Galileo data with insight gained from Cassini's observations of Enceladus and the Hubble data.

Xianzhe Jia is the first author on Monday's paper and a planetary scientist at the University of MI; he's also working on instruments that will fly on both Clipper and JUICE. "This is very likely to be the result of a plume, making it the best direct evidence for such an occurrence yet".

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Recently, evidence has been building that Europa may have a plume as well. No other flybys picked up evidence of these eruptions, though this particular one was the closest that the spacecraft came to Europa's surface.

Porco was the leader of the imaging team for the Cassini mission, which confirmed that Saturn's moon Enceladus spurts geysers of salty water from its own subsurface ocean out through its south pole.

That's still not exactly easy, but it is less complicated than asking a probe to fly all the way to Europa, safely land, burrow through a miles-thick crust of rock-hard ice, and then get to work being an extraterrestrial ocean explorer. But the data also suggest the craft flew through a dense region of particles, something McGrath thought might come from Galileo flying through a watery plume. But if Europa is venting the contents of its ocean or subsurface lakes into space, researchers may be able to study the plumes to search for organic molecules.

Life as we know it requires liquid water, so any discovery of liquid water in the solar system opens the potential for finding other life, though the expectation in our neighborhood is that it is microbial, not intelligent.

"We saw very peculiar changes in the magnetic signal, something I don't think has been explained in the past", Jia says.

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Both NASA and the European Space Agency have missions to Jupiter and Europa planned.

The presence of the plume means the moon is geologically active, which is promising for the possibility of alien life in the sunless sea. That research led to the conclusion that Galileo may well have flown through a plume. It's targeted to be launched in space by June 2022.

Jia and his colleagues pulled observations from the spacecraft's magnetometer, which measures magnetic fields, and from a second instrument that measures the density of charged particles. The mission, called the Europa Clipper, aims to closely observe Europa, a distant moon of Jupiter, and could answer lingering questions about whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system.

"We know that Europa has a lot of the ingredients necessary for life as we know it".

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