Europa, Jupiter's Ocean Moon, May Shoot Plumes of Water Into Space


"We also pulled out the plasma wave data from Galileo, and surprisingly, around the same time, the plasma wave showed anomalous emissions".

A new analysis of the measurements made by NASA's Galileo spacecraft more than 20 years ago in the ice sheet of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, revealed that it could have enough ingredients to sustain life. The orbiter had a close encounter with Europa in late 1997, and what at the time was thought to be a odd anomaly in its data is now believed to be evidence that Galileo actually flew through one of Europa's water plumes.

If the existence of the plumes is confirmed and they are linked to Europa's ocean, they could provide a tantalisingly straightforward way to sample the moon in search of signs of life.

Although Jupiter's icy moon Europa was discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610, astronomers are still uncovering the secrets beneath its frozen crust. So, Galileo most likely flew through the middle of the plume for about three minutes.

"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. "But there are lots of energetic particles in the environment of Europa and they ionize the material, so they make it an electrically charged".

Lead author of the study, Xianzhe Jia, believes that the data from the Galileo probe is a "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa".

Not everyone is convinced.

"With the Hubble data in hand", Dr. Kivelson said, "we had an idea of how big a plume might be reasonable".

"Even with our wildest imagination, we always see stuff that we totally did not expect", McGrath says.

"During Galileo, we'd always known there was something weird during this flyby", Cynthia Phillips, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, was quoted as saying. The robot reached Jupiter in 1995 and orbited the gas giant and its moons, returning some of the most detailed and astounding data about the distant worlds.

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An artist image of the planned NASA space mission to fly over the Jupiter Moon Europa.

Research suggesting the possibility of an ocean on Europa was published as early as 1977, after the Voyager mission saw long lines and dark spots, as opposed to a cratered surface similar to other moons.

For years, scientists suspected Europa vented hot water vapor from an ocean beneath its surface.

The prospect of the water gushing from the Moon's interior has tantalized scientists, as that warm, vast interior ocean is thought to be one of the best places in the Solar System beyond Earth-if not the best-to look for extant life. But determining habitability will be a major challenge.

Almost 15 years have passed since NASA sent its Galileo spacecraft flying into Jupiter's outer atmosphere to die-eliminating the possibility of contaminating nearby Jovian moons with any traces of Earth bacteria.

That's still not exactly easy, but it is less complicated than asking a probe to fly all the way to Europa, safely land, burrow through a miles-thick crust of rock-hard ice, and then get to work being an extraterrestrial ocean explorer.

Besides, the recent research shows that Europa has never seized to be active, geologically speaking, at least.

The data was captured on Galileo's closest encounter with the moon on December 16, 1997. "The data is there, publicly available for nearly 20 years", Jia says. "This result makes the plumes seem to be much more real and, for me, is a tipping point".

"The. instruments are designed with Europa's plumes in mind, allowing us to infer the oceans composition and thus its suitability for life, and even to look for direct chemical signs of extant life", Vance said of the Europa Clipper mission.