Jupiter moon Europa a prime candidate for life

15 May, 2018, 22:21 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space

"Given the evidence of plumes available so far, there is a good chance that those spacecraft may obtain direct measurements of plumes ejecting material from the subsurface ocean into space", said Jia.

Inspired by the Hubble images and discussions of planned missions to revisit Europa, Jia and his team dusted off the data from two instruments onboard Galileo, gathered during the spacecraft's 11 close passes around the moon.

Previous ultraviolet images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2012 suggested the presence of plumes, but this new analysis used data collected much closer to the source and is considered strong, corroborating support for plumes.

And there were. In data from the magnetometer and plasma wave instruments, Jia and his colleagues found evidence in one of the flybys that Galileo passed through a cloud of charged particles, particles that could be produced by a gusher of salty water.

The newly analyzed Galileo data provides "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa", said study lead author Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of MI.

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"This one certainly stood out as very special", the study's lead author Xianzhe Jia said. 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. The particles that are spread by the plumes will be found in the atmosphere of Europa. There was a fair amount of suspicion of plumes from Europa's surface, but there was no hard evidence to back it up.

Slightly smaller than Earth's moon, Europa's ocean resides under an ice layer 15 to 25 kilometres thick, with an estimated depth of 60 to 150 kilometres. Researchers say that the data suggests that the probe flew through a plume in 1997 in the same spot where Hubble caught a glimpse of plumes in 2016. The new paper essentially confirms that, finding that in 1997, a now-retired spacecraft flew through a jet of liquid that upset the magnetic field and plasma around the moon.

Researchers have long believed that Europa is home to a vast saltwater ocean, trapped beneath a thick crust of ice, making the moon potentially habitable for life and a focus of upcoming robotic exploration. "It's unlikely that one of these plumes is going to throw a fish into space that's going to whack into Europa Clipper", Cynthia Phillips of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory tells Drake.

That was until Xianzhe Jia, a planetary scientist at the University of MI, studied the ancient data and found that plumes did exist based on the unexplained fluctuations in magnetic waves on the moon's surface. The location of the plumes was close to where Galileo took its readings. "Much of what they talk about on Europa has all been speculation", Porco said. One is NASA's Europa Clipper mission, due to launch in the 2020s and at least orbit the moon and possibly send a lander down to the surface as well. "The data was already there, but we needed advanced technology to make sense of the observations", Jia said in a statement. Even if the water from Europa's icy seas comprises a massive number of additives, bringing the freezing temperatures lower than it's on Earth, it might still be warm enough to become liquid.

"If plumes exist and we can directly sample what's coming from the interior of Europa, then we can more easily get at whether Europa has the ingredients for life", said Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist. That's the big picture.

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