NASA Finds Evidence Of Water Plumes On Jupiter's Moon Europa

NASA Finds Evidence Of Water Plumes On Jupiter's Moon Europa

"I personally think that this [the new study] is strong circumstantial evidence that a plume could have been present at Europa 20 years ago, when this flyby took place", Cynthia Phillips, a NASA researcher whose work focuses on Europa, said via email. The surface temperature never rises above -160C (-256F). And NASA is working on a mission that could do just that.

"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.

Sampling the water possibly eruption from Europa could have huge implications for our understanding of the world. The orbiter had a close encounter with Europa in late 1997, and what at the time was thought to be a odd anomaly in its data is now believed to be evidence that Galileo actually flew through one of Europa's water plumes.

Another set of observations, taken in 2014 and 2016, found a recurring jet shooting from an unusually warm "hot spot" near the moon's equator. But in 2008 NASA's Cassini spacecraft swing by the Saturnian moon of Enceladus and intentionally flew through one of the plumes of matter than the body periodically emits to examine what it contained. In the past six years, two teams of researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope reported the possible existence of plumes.

Jupiter's icy moon Europa is slightly smaller than Earth's moon. For starters, Jia said, the Galileo mission team wasn't specifically looking for plumes.

The data was captured on Galileo's closest encounter with the moon on December 16, 1997.

That mission had a severe shortcoming: The spacecraft's more powerful antenna failed to deploy after launch, limiting the amount of data the spacecraft could send back to Earth.

Margaret Kivelson was principle investigator of the magnetometer on Galileo.

They found that during Galileo's closest flyby of Europa, it detected a major shift in the moon's magnetic field and a substantial increase in plasma density.

The results were in "satisfying agreement", Jia said.

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During its time at Jupiter, Galileo performed 11 flybys of Europa.

The source of the plume is still unclear. But researchers suspected that Europa may have lakes under its icy crust that made it worthy of investigation.

But the water could originate elsewhere, Jia cautioned.

"It's unlikely that plumes, if they exist, come directly from a subsurface ocean layer, since the surface ice layer is thought to be kilometers thick".

The behaviour of the plumes is also unpredictable. What warmth there is comes largely from tidal kneading driven by the massive gravitational forces that come with an orbit around Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. But follow-up observations from Hubble were unable to confirm that idea.

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

Perhaps someone else will find further clues by mining years-old data.

The Clipper mission - now in the preliminary design phase - is projected to arrive at Jupiter sometime around 2030. Material jetted from a plume and snowing back down onto the moon's surface would make landing sites in close proximity to the plume the most prized spots.

The findings are good news for the Europa Clipper mission, which may launch as early as June 2022.

"But it's a long stretch to go from being able to measure the specific composition to being able to say, 'There's life, '" she cautioned at the news conference on Monday (Tuesday, NZT). The spacecraft will seek molecules associated with biological activity.

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