Jupiter's Icy Moon Europa May Have Water Plumes, NASA's Galileo Data Shows

Jupiter's Icy Moon Europa May Have Water Plumes, NASA's Galileo Data Shows

Kenneth Drake
May 15, 2018

A view of Jupiter's moon Europa created from images taken by the Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s.

NASA researchers said they compared the measurements from two decades ago and found that changes in the magnetic field and plasma around Europa uncovered by Galileo would parallel findings from Hubble a few years ago. Although the data has been available since it was collected in 1997, it's only now that an analysis confirms the existence of water plumes.

The study, led by Xianzhe Jia, of the University of MI, seems to confirm an idea that had already arisen from observations of the Hubble Space Telescope taken in 2012.

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. Plumes from the surface means that the ice is warm. The particles that are spread by the plumes will be found in the atmosphere of Europa. No other flybys picked up evidence of these eruptions, though this particular one was the closest that the spacecraft came to Europa's surface. This could very well be an intriguing discussion, due to the fact the moon likely has a vast, deep ocean that is surrounded by an icy shell.

The revelation has again emphasised the scientific consensus that Europa, which has a salty ocean twice the size of Earth's, could be home to extraterrestrial life. If researchers want to know if some form of life has indeed taken root inside the planet, studying those plumes may be the easiest way to prove it. Jia and colleagues used sophisticated 3D modeling techniques developed by the university with magnetometry and charged particle signatures and dimensions of potential plumes captured in Hubble's UV images. A new computer simulation gives us an idea of how the magnetic field interacted with a plume.

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Now, in a new study, the researchers describe how they went back to the Galileo data after grainy images beamed home from the Hubble space telescope in 2016 showed what appeared to be plumes of water blasting from Europa's surface.

While the Galileo mission never focused on water plumes shooting from Europa, Xianzhe Jia, the lead researcher behind the study from the University of MI, thought that maybe the data collected by Hubble corroborated with that collected by the orbiter and could provide evidence of water plumes erupting from the moon. 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. This means future missions to Jupiter could fly through these plumes and look directly for signs of life. As it hurtled past, instruments onboard the probe detected a brief but dramatic twist in the magnetic field and a sudden, rapid increase in the density of plasma, or ionised gas, the spacecraft was flying through. The question of whether there is life on Europa, despite harboring favorable conditions, remains unanswered, but not for too long we suppose.

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. It's targeted to be launched in space by June 2022. "Observations of plumes may tell us a lot about whether or not Europa's ocean has the ingredients suitable for life".

Now NASA is planning a mission - named Europa Clipper -to fly over the distant world in the 2020s for a closer look. That's the big picture.