Life on Jupiter's moon? Europa's plumes suggest so

ImageNASA’s Galileo spacecraft appears to have flown through a plume erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa more than 20 years

ImageNASA’s Galileo spacecraft appears to have flown through a plume erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa more than 20 years

Study lead author Xianzhe Jia, from the University of Michigan's Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, told Space.com that the new analysis of the Galileo data offers "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa".

The hidden waters of Europa have become a major goal in the search for extraterrestrial life, and sending a spacecraft to take a sample of that type of geyser could be the "most practical" way to verify it, the scientists said. The surface temperature never rises above -160C (-256F).

Researchers are already working on missions to do just that.

The Europa Clipper mission may launch as early as June 2022.

The results of the Clipper and JUICE missions, he continued, "could have huge implications" - nudging us Earthlings closer to understanding whether we are alone.

For years, planetary scientists have argued over whether Europa might be spitting water into space, as Saturn's moon Enceladus does.

The team reconstructed the spacecraft's path to pinpoint the plume's location on the moon's surface. But now, as Sarah Kaplan reports for The Washington Post, a new study reviewing 20-year-old data from the Galileo spacecraft's flybys of Europa adds to the mounting evidence that the plumes are indeed real.

The ongoing debate called for on-site observations, Jia said.

But not all the data the craft gathered made it back to Earth because, early in the mission, one of its antennas didn't unfurl properly.

So why did the Galileo team miss the data during the initial flyby in 1997?

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Margaret Kivelson, a space physicist at the University of California at Los Angeles who was principal investigator for Galileo's magnetometer, confirmed his hunch. They found their simulation matched closely with the data from Galileo, giving them confidence to confirm that these magnetic signatures were caused by water escaping Europa's ice shell. And the density of charged particles surrounding the spacecraft would change as the spacecraft entered, flew through, and then exited the plume. The geological, compositional and induced magnetic field measurements of Europa show that a salty ocean full of water in its liquid form, situated at about 100 kilometers below the icy surface, is now sprinkling under the moon's frozen crust.

When the three minutes of data associated with the plume were analyzed after the flyby in 1997, scientists thought it was a phenomenon of Jupiter's magnetic fields. The results were in "satisfying agreement", Jia said.

The space agency is priming two probes, including one that will land on its surface, to explore the distant moon in detail within the next decade, the agency says.

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

The source of the plume is still unclear. 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.

But the water could originate elsewhere, Jia cautioned.

The behavior of the plumes is also unpredictable. Follow-up observations revealed nothing.

Their discovery not only suggests Europa's watery plumes really do exist, but are also frequent and widespread. Perhaps someone else will find further clues by mining years-old data. This was the second time a plume has been observed in this exact spot, which had researchers excited that it could prove to be a feature on the surface. A member of the Europa Clipper science team, McGrath delivered a presentation to fellow team scientists, highlighting other Hubble observations of Europa.

The recent Hubble data gave Kivelson and others the idea that a water plume might be responsible, since the spacecraft had passed close enough to Europa to possibly fly through one.

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