Hubble Space Telescope Finds Evidence Of Water Plumes On Jupiter's Moon Europa
What's going on these days on Jupiter's moon Europa? Oh, nothing much, just a plume of water erupting off its surface. And where there's water, there could be life.
Last December, the Hubble Space Telescope detected the water in Europa's frozen south pole. Hubble didn't see the water plume itself, but researchers said that the hydrogen and oxygen evidence pointed to the existence of water geysers. These may have come from the ocean which scientists believe exists under Europa's icy crust.
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"By far the simplest explanation for this water vapor is that it erupted from plumes on the surface of Europa," said lead author Lorenz Roth of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa's crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa's potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice. And that is tremendously exciting."
If Europa does in fact have water plumes, it would be the only moon other than Saturn's Enceladus to shoot water. The water on Enceladus escapes the surface through the cracks on the surface, which may be how Europa's water plume escapes to the surface, suggested Roth.
This is the second study this week to offer tantalizing clues into the possibility of life on Europa. A new analysis of NASA's Galileo mission, which concluded in 2003, found that clay-type minerals on Europa's surface may be the result of a collision with a comet or asteroid. Such minerals often carry organic material too, so the collision may have placed life-creating elements onto the icy surface.
"Organic materials, which are important building blocks for life, are often found in comets and primitive asteroids," said NASA's Jim Shirley. "Finding the rocky residues of this comet crash on Europa's surface may open up a new chapter in the story of the search for life on Europa."
NASA hasn't sent a probe to Europa since Galileo's mission ended in 2003. The space agency is currently studying a concept called the Europa Clipper, a spacecraft which would orbit Jupiter to determine whether the moon is capable of supporting life. During repeated flybys of Europa, the Clipper would use radar to see through the moon's icy crust, image the surface with a topographic camera and investigate the surface's composition using a spectrometer. It would launch in 2021 and cost $2 billion.
The water plume study, "Transient Water Vapor at Europa's South Pole," was published yesterday in Science.
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