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Europa water plume: Another step toward living on a moon

15 May 2018, 02:07 | Justin Tyler

Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest

Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space

The 20-year-old data was captured on Galileo's closest encounter with the moon but scientists were unable to explain the unexpected signals at the time.

Europa's frozen surface has always been thought to cover a salty ocean about twice the size of our planet's, according to AFP. For example, NASA's Cassini spacecraft sampled plumes from Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus that contained hydrogen from hydrothermal vents, an environment that may have given rise to life on Earth.

Checking for the presence of the water plumes on Europa, the Jupiter's icy moon, is, thus, of utmost significance and is getting closer to being a real thing because a United States science team managed to rebuild a 3D model of one of the plumes, basing themselves on the data collected by Galileo probe. Xianzhe Jia, a University of MI space scientist, and his colleagues published their findings on May 14 in Nature Astronomy. But no spacecraft has gotten close to Europa since Galileo, which swooped 402km above the moon's "hot spot" in December 1997.

The results didn't make sense at the time - but they are just what scientists would expect to find near a speeding jet of salty water.

The spacecraft, launched in 1989 to examine the fifth planet from the Sun with its dozens of moons, became the first in 1995 to enter the orbit of a gas giant planet.

According to the new study, NASA's Galileo spacecraft - which ended its mission by purposefully crashing into Jupiter's atmosphere in 2003 - likely flew through a plume of water erupting from Europa in 1997. 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.

"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.

Kivelson has been studying Jupiter and its moons for a long time.

This ocean appears to be in contact with Europa's rocky core, making possible a variety of interesting and complex chemical reactions.

"Observations of plumes may tell us a lot about whether or not Europa's ocean has the ingredients suitable for life". Previous estimates had suggested the moon's crust might be tens if not hundreds of kilometers thick-too thick, that is, to allow direct exploration of its potentially life-friendly ocean anytime soon. The mission, called the Europa Clipper, aims to closely observe Europa, a distant moon of Jupiter, and could answer lingering questions about whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system.

Why did it take more than two decades to tease this result out of the Galileo data set?

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.

The tallest of the plumes was so powerful that it extended 193km above the moon's surface; Old Faithful, the famous geyser at Yellowstone, reaches 56 metres.

To find out more the Europa Clipper mission will make over 40 close flybys of the moon's surface, some only tens of kilometers up.

Since Galileo's end, the Hubble Space Telescope has periodically observed the Jovian system.

The conditions could serve as a stand-in to investigating alien life, scientists say.

The moon, smaller than our own, is covered with a layer of cracked ice that covers a vast underground sea.

Looking at Europa's surface, you might not suspect that the planet could harbor life.

'If there is microbial life in these lakes, it has likely been under the ice for at least 120,000 years, so it likely evolved in isolation, ' said Anja Rutishauser, a PhD student at the University of Alberta who led the research.

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