Like Your Most Drunken Saturday Nights, Jupiter's Moon Spews Liquid

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

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

However, we will have to wait a little longer before we get the confirmation on the water plume on Europa as the NASA's Europa Clipper and the ESA's JUICE will approach the icy moon of Jupiter sometime between late 2020 and early 2030.

The solar system's ocean worlds might be the most promising place to look. "The data is there, publicly available for nearly 20 years", Jia says.

The research was led by Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI in Ann Arbor and lead author of the journal article.

Based on what the scientists learned from exploring the water vapor plumes in Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, and after conducting several studies in three dimensions, they concluded that this type of superficial movement also occurs in Europa. The data provide independent evidence that the moon's subsurface liquid water reservoir may be venting plumes of water vapor above its icy shell.

As suggestive as these results were, they didn't represent a definitive Europa plume discovery, researchers said at the time.

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"The data were there, but we needed sophisticated modeling to make sense of the observation", Jia said. Finding plumes raises the possibility that the ocean tucked beneath its icy shell might erupt into outer space, which means that tasting that alien sea and searching it for signs of life could be as simple as sending a spacecraft zooming through a plume of ejected water vapour.

It comes from measurements made from much closer up during a flyby of Nasa's now-expired Galileo spacecraft.

"We know that Europa has a lot of the ingredients necessary for life as we know it".

Jia's team then began to analyze the old data in earnest, feeding some of the old data into a new 3D computer model developed by his team at the University of MI. "It's unbelievable how hard it is to anticipate something that just hasn't happened before", she said. Because they were initially seen when Europa was farthest from Jupiter, researchers thought they might be driven by tidal stress - the friction generated by Jupiter's gravitational pull that keeps Europa's interior liquid. There, microbes don't receive energy from sunlight but use methanogenesis, a process that reduces carbon dioxide with hydrogen, to form methane.

Twice before has Nasa reported evidence, from its Hubble Space Telescope, for the existence of water plumes on Europa, though this interpretation has caused much debate. Then the Galileo mission reached Europa in 1996, and Kivelson's detections revealed that there was an ocean on another planet. The Europa Clipper, named for the innovative, streamlined ships of the 1800s, will launch in the 2020s and arrive at Europa after a few years.

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NASA originally wanted to use the Clipper mission to land a probe on Europa for direct sampling, and one idea was for a robot melt its way down through the ice and into the waters below, but budget cuts put paid to that.

"On one particular pass by Europa, the spacecraft came very, very close to the surface - as I remember less than 150 kilometers (93 miles) above the surface - and it was on that pass that we saw signatures that we never really understood", said Margaret Kivelson, professor emerita of space physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, on NASA TV. When Jia and his team sifted through the observations of plasma and magnetic wave fluctuations Galileo picked up on Europa, Jia and his team were able to confirm that, yes, the geysers did, in fact, exist.

Schmidt will be an investigator for the ice-penetrating radar instrument that will be housed on the Europa Clipper. But researchers suspected that Europa may have lakes under its icy crust that made it worthy of investigation.

"There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa", said Pappalardo, who is a project scientist for the Europa Clipper mission.

Some of the flybys indicated a higher density of particles near the surface - possible plumes. That's the big picture.

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