Plumes of ocean spray are emanating from Jupiter's moon Europa

Cesar Mills
May 15, 2018

According to a study released past year, the Hubble Space Telescope showed a water plume erupting on the warmest part of the surface of Europa, whose ocean contains twice as much water as Earth's seas. And while NASA already has plans to explore Europa, this is the most heartening sign of life that planetary scientists have been waiting for. The surface temperature never rises above -160C (-256F).

"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.

It's based on research by the University of MI that re-examined data when the Galileo space craft flew over Europa in 1997.

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

A bend in Europa's magnetic field observed by NASA's Galileo spacecraft during a 1997 flyby appears to have been caused by a geyser gushing through its frozen crust from a subsurface ocean, researchers who reexamined the Galileo data reported on Monday.

In late 2013, tantalizing images from the Hubble Space Telescope revealed possible 125-mile-high plumes of water vapour erupting from a region in the moon's southern hemisphere.

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.

To back up the find, the team also pulled data from Galileo's Plasma Wave Spectrometer, which detected plasma wave signatures consistent with a plume.

Margaret G. Kivelson, an emeritus professor of space physics at U.C.L.A. who was the principal investigator for Galileo's magnetometer, was at Dr. McGrath's talk.

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"When we first saw those images, I think a lot of us in the community were very excited", says planetary scientists Xianzhe Jia from the University of MI. 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 readings were spot on for what would be expected if Galileo had flown through a salty plume.

As Kaplan reports, the team ran the data through a complex modeling system of Europa's plumes. The results were in "satisfying agreement", Jia said.

The recent discovery is very good news for two upcoming, multi-billion-dollar missions to Jupiter and its moons.

The source of the plume is still unclear. If a plume vented water vapor from the moon, some of the water's constituent hydrogen and oxygen would become charged by being stripped of electrons by the radiation belts that surround Jupiter.

But the water could originate elsewhere, Jia cautioned. An ice penetrating radar will determine the thickness of the moon's icy shell and search for subsurface lakes similar to those beneath Antarctica's ice sheet.

The behavior of the plumes is also unpredictable. Galileo flew by Europa a total of 11 times. Observations of plumes were made by Hubble in 2012 and 2016.

Space scientists have just figured out that an unusual anomaly from over 20 years ago was the equivalent of a space probe being squirted in the face. The mission may not arrive until 2028.

Flying at 6km (3.7 miles) a second Galileo made its closest ever flyby, shooting across the surface at an altitude of 200km (125 miles) when it detected something unusual.

The spacecraft will seek molecules associated with biological activity.

This article was originally published by The Washington Post.

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