Water plumes on Europa detected by Galileo spacecraft

Water plumes on Europa detected by Galileo spacecraft

Water plumes on Europa detected by Galileo spacecraft

Fifteen years after the NASA probe burned up in Jupiter's atmosphere, newly analyzed magnetic and plasma data from the mission have bolstered evidence that Europa, the planet's ice-bound moon, is likely venting water into space.

During the 1997 flyby, the probe was just 124 miles above Europa's surface, and may have "grazed" a plume erupting from the icy surface.

Xianzhe Jia, a planetary scientist at the University of MI, heard astronomers suspected the plumes sat on the moon's equator, but couldn't get a good look at them with the Hubble Space Telescope, he told NPR. Meanwhile, hydrothermal vents that blast out hot water could make environments cosy enough to support deep-ocean life (as they did and still do on Earth).

Scientists today will discuss the latest findings from studying Europa, one of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter.

NASA scientists have also proposed a mission for a spacecraft that would actually land on the Europan surface, tentatively slated for a 2024 launch.

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.

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"There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa", said Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the US.

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Water plumes support the idea that underneath Europa's ice-crested surface, there's a massive expanse of subterranean ocean.

The 20-year-old data was captured on Galileo's closest encounter with the moon but scientists were unable to explain the unexpected signals at the time.

The case for a giant plume of water vapor wafting from Jupiter's potentially life-supporting moon Europa just got a lot stronger.

Europa is considered among the prime candidates for life in our solar system, but is not the only one.

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Expected to launch in the mid 2020s, the Europa Clipper will be equipped with nine instruments, including high-resolution cameras, spectrometers and an ice-penetrating radar to measure the thickness of the crust and to look for signs of sub-surface water.

The newest proof was discovered among data collected by the Galileo mission in 1997 during a Europa flyby.

"The data were there, but we needed sophisticated modeling to make sense of the observation", Jia said.

In the meantime, evidence that Galileo flew through a plume of water vapor jetting from the interior of Europa has fired imaginations. That would give it unprecedented access to visuals of plumes and the ability to taste of their water for salts, organic compounds, and other chemicals. "We can even collect dust particles". That mission calls for two flybys of Europa from about 200 miles away.

If NASA (and the rest of us who care about the search for alien life) get lucky, those jets may be on when the Europa Clipper reaches its destination and starts its science work.

The evidence gathered to date suggests that the processes producing Europa's plumes - if they do indeed exist - may not be continuous like the geysers of Enceladus but instead intermittent. For example, they may reveal Europa's ocean has the right kind of ingredients for life to thrive, they may confirm the depth of the ocean, or myriad other things.

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