Is Jupiter's moon Europa venting plumes of water vapor?

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

The image at the head of this article is an artist's interpretation of what a plume of water vapor might look like blasting from Europa's surface.

The European Space Agency also is planning a mission, known as JUICE, for JUpiter ICy moons Exlorer, that will arrive in 2029 and spend three years studying the planet, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede.

To make sense of those measurements and ensure they were not merely due to background fluctuations produced by Jupiter itself, Jia and his team compared them with computer simulations of how a plume would affect the plasma and magnetic field around Europa along the path Galileo took. 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.

The Galileo data were unique because the magnetometer was trying to detect changes in Europa's magnetic field as the probe approached the moon, like a boat going through water and creating waves.

"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.

"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. It may be that the region is either geologically active or the surface ice is thin or even broken, and this would allow plumes to erupt. In it, she reviewed all the evidence for potential plumes coming from the moon, including the intriguing possibility that the Galileo spacecraft had spotted a plume two decades earlier.

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Instead, scientists suspect that tidal heating caused by the gravitational pull of Jupiter could be pressurising the watery ocean beneath Europa's frozen surface and causing it to blow out through cracks in the surface. This would let the scientists search molecules, which could be capable of supporting the formation of life there. Until now, scientists thought a probe would need to land on the icy moon to investigate, but the latest research suggests the plumes could be sampled by an orbiter.

Water plumes support the idea that underneath Europa's ice-crested surface, there's a massive expanse of subterranean ocean.

But the sensitivity of telescopic data is limited, and more was needed to be sure that these were really plumes, the researchers said.

Europa is our best shot of finding biological life in the solar system, researchers say. "But the habitability of Europa is one of the big questions that we want to understand", said planetary scientist Elizabeth Turtle of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. As Galileo flew near the moon, its instruments detected significant, sudden changes in the magnetic field and charged particles around Europa-as if the spacecraft was passing through a tenuous cloud of material rising from below.

No definitive reason behind the chat has been revealed, other than to discuss the continued intrigue behind Europa harboring some form of alien life.

The result that emerged, with a simulated plume, was a match to the Galileo data from 21 years ago. The spacecraft will make repeated flybys of Jupiter and more than 40 close passes by Europa at altitudes as low as 16 miles. It's targeted to be launched in space by June 2022. So far, signs suggest that Europa features all the basic ingredients of life-and the plumes could save us the trouble of getting below the icy crust to find it.

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