Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest

by Edgar Hayes May 15, 2018, 16:16
Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest

A new look at old data is giving scientists a fresh reason to view Europa, a moon of Jupiter, as a leading candidate in the search for life beyond Earth, with evidence of water plumes shooting into space.

If Galileo already flew within the immediate vicinity of the jets without even trying, NASA could certainly achieve the same feat with a new probe created to specifically to sample the icy plumes in the hunt for microbial life or some other organic proof that something is alive in Europa's depths.

Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor at the University of MI who led the team that re-assessed the Galileo data, said the location, duration and variations seen in the magnetometer and plasma wave data are consistent with the presumed plume seen by Hubble. Meanwhile, hydrothermal vents that blast out hot water could make environments cosy enough to support deep-ocean life (as they did and still do on Earth). Of those places, Jupiter's moon Europa is perhaps the most promising, and the planet's warm ocean is incredibly tantalizing to researchers.

"The result that emerged, with a simulated plume, was a match to the magnetic field and plasma signatures the team pulled from the Galileo data", NASA pointed out in the news release.

One version of the model included plumes on the surface of Europa, whereas another did not.

Costing $8bn, Europa Clipper will launch as early as June 2022 and will conduct a series of low-altitude flybys, collecting samples of frozen water and dust. This NASA-run Jupiter mission Galileo ran from the years 1995 until 2003, and collected loads of invaluable data on our most recognizable galactic cousin. "The data was already there, but we needed advanced technology to make sense of the observations", Jia said in a statement.

Hunt for clues in the universe to answer one of humanity's biggest questions: Are we alone?

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.

It's based on research by the University of MI that re-examined data when the Galileo space craft flew over Europa in 1997. Although the data has been available since it was collected in 1997, it's only now that an analysis confirms the existence of water plumes.

Europa has fascinated astronomers for decades because, under an extremely cold and mysteriously thick ice crust, it probably contains oceans of liquid water, a well-known potential source of life. Jia said there was too little data to speculate at the moment, but that more research is being done.

To figure out the puzzle, Melissa A. McGrath, a senior scientist at the SETI Institute, turned to data from the Galileo mission, reports Kenneth Chang at the New York Times.

"It's unlikely that one of these plumes is going to throw a fish into space that's going to whack into Europa Clipper", says Cynthia Phillips of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Turns out plumes give off a distinctive signal that a magnetometer can measure.

One ardent supporter of a mission to Europa, Texas Congressman John Culberson, broke the embargo on this news last week during a Congressional hearing on NASA's budget.

The evidence gathered to date suggests that the processes producing Europa's plumes - if they do indeed exist - may not be continuous like the geysers of Enceladus but instead intermittent.

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