Europa Plumes: New Evidence Found for Water on Jupiter Moon

Katie Ramirez
May 15, 2018

Old data from NASA's Galileo mission suggest the spacecraft may have passed through a giant water plume spewing into space from Europa's surface.

The Europa Clipper mission backed by Culberson would do as many as 45 close fly-bys, with new, more powerful instruments to "sniff and taste the stuff in the plume...and get a detailed composition of Europa's interior", as one of the researchers on the recent study put it at a NASA event. The plumes of water vapor likely originate from this ocean.

At the time the blip in the data was unexplained but it is now believed it was a water plume.

The new data, reported in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy, was examined by a team led by the University of MI.

Now that we have the geysers to sail through, some of Clipper's gear, like the instruments meant to detect the tiniest traces of water in the atmosphere, might not be as useful as NASA thought it would be. "But this has made me a believer", says Morgan Cable, an astrochemist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was not involved in the research.

The 20-year-old data supports the findings of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which uncovered clues of possible water plumes in the same "hotspot" on Europa during its observations of Jupiter's moon in 2014 and 2016. No other flybys picked up evidence of these eruptions, though this particular one was the closest that the spacecraft came to Europa's surface.

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When the plume's particles become electrically conductive, they alter the surrounding magnetic fields. Looking through the data of a Europa flyby, Xianzhe Jia and colleagues spotted something unusual.

"The results - based on an observed deflection and decrease in the observed magnetic field over a distance of 1,000 km [620 miles] - imply that there's a dense region of charged particles", study author Andrew Coates, an astrophysicist at the University College London, wrote in The Conversation. But he's not the only one thrilled by the new finding.

As the Inquisitr reported earlier today, NASA announced a major update on Jupiter's icy moon.

The newly analyzed Galileo data provides "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa", said study lead author Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of MI. 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. Because geologic processes move material from underground to the surface, the reverse may also be happening, transporting surface materials highly oxidized by Jupiter's harsh radiation down through the ice. "If you have an exchange of those materials, that might provide the reactants needed for life". "We can stare with really good telescopes in Earth orbit as much as we want, but to really answer the question, you have to go there and do the measurements". "The plumes would just be the icing on the cake", Quick said. NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft, now scheduled to launch in 2022, is created to fly closer than we've ever gotten to the Jovian moon. Each spacecraft would reach the mysterious world less than three years after launch.

"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". Potential passages through a plume would be a bonus, allowing both spacecraft to sniff out any signs of curious oceanic chemistry or even of life carried aloft in the tenuous vapor. He has made common cause with supporters of the Boeing-built Space Launch System, a huge rocket NASA is developing to explore the solar system.

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