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

Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space

Galileo recorded tons of data in the seven plus years it orbiting Jupiter.

For the new study, experts measured variations in the moon's magnetic field and plasma waves, based on data obtained during Galileo's close flyby, and found they were "consistent" with the spacecraft crossing a plume. Still, Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor at the University of MI, guessed that there may be clues lurking in the information that was beamed back.

But it wasn't until past year, at a conference for boffins planning the Europa Clipper spacecraft that's due to head out to the mysterious moon in 2022, that Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI put the pieces together and made a decision to revisit the Galileo data. Observations of plumes were made by Hubble in 2012 and 2016. Before heading to a meeting of scientists working on the Clipper mission, a thought occurred to Dr. McGrath: "Gee, I really should check to see if any of them line up with any of the claimed plume detections", from Hubble. We can go back and look at that old data set anew. The 1997 flyby was close to the site of the repeat detection by Hubble. Something was wrong: There was a three-minute "bend" where there shouldn't be.

"The data were there, but we needed sophisticated modeling to make sense of the observation", Jia explained in the NASA news release. Galileo actually did a flyby of that location, and it was the closest one we ever had. By and large, those model predictions matched their observations, ruling out Jupiter as the source and strengthening the case for watery plumes erupting from Europa's depths.

"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. "It's fantastic how hard it is to anticipate something that just hasn't happened before", she said.

How could Europa host life? There's water. There's energy. For example, NASA's Cassini spacecraft sampled plumes from Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus that contained hydrogen from hydrothermal vents, an environment that may have given rise to life on Earth.

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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. Scientists think this, and the heat provided by the constant gravitational kneading of Europa's core by Jupiter and its other moons, makes Europa a prime candidate for life, albeit on a microbial scale.

Galileo launched in 1989 to examine the fifth planet from the Sun. Data from NASA's Galileo orbiter launched a generation ago yields new evidence of plumes, eruptions of water vapor, from Jupiter's moon Europa. That's because heat from the interior of the moon is being forced upward in the plumes.

"If we find active plumes, then we can sail on through them and sniff and taste that stuff that's in the plume", Bob Pappalardo, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who wasn't a study author, said on NASA TV. Schmidt, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, is also one of the architects of the project that became the Europa Clipper mission.

"I hate to tell you how old I'll be when the mission gets to Europa, but that's OK", she says.

The result that emerged, with a simulated plume, was a match to the magnetic field and plasma signatures the team pulled from the Galileo data. During this trip, the spacecraft swung by Europa 11 times, conducting radio experiments that hint of an atmosphere. Not only do the plumes suggest that subsurface ocean likely exists, but it also means the Clipper, and any future mission, can just fly through the spewing mist for a sample, instead of hacking through the icy crust. "That's what the mission is after". That's the big picture.

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