Old data presents latest evidence of Europa plumes

Jupiter's moon Europa harbors a saltwater ocean beneath an icy crust

Now, researchers report in a new study that NASA's Galileo Jupiter probe, which orbited the planet from 1995 to 2003, also detected a likely Europa plume, during a close flyby of the icy moon in 1997.

That's particularly exciting because it also suggests that Europa may have an energy source propelling the water skyward.

Given the suspected abundance of warm, liquid water under its thick ice shell, the moon is considered a "top candidate" by NASA for life on a solar system body other than Earth.

The Clipper aims to find out whether Europa's plumes are coming from its subsurface ocean and to gather samples that would help uncover how the plumes are produced.

To determine whether Europa is indeed life-friendly and to look for possible evidence of those organisms themselves, scientists want spacecraft much more powerful than Galileo to return to the moon. Galileo actually did a flyby of that location, and it was the closest one we ever had.

The photo on the left traces the location of erupting plumes observed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2014 and 2016 (inside the green oval).

For years, planetary scientists have argued over whether Europa might be spitting water into space, as Saturn's moon Enceladus does.

If such geysers are common on Europa, Nasa and European Space Agency (Esa) missions that are already in the pipeline could fly through and look for signs of life in the brine, which comes from a vast subsurface ocean containing twice as much water as all the oceans on Earth.

Images from a long-dead NASA spacecraft have revealed what may be water vapour plumes rising from the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, bolstering hopes it could harbour life. According to Jai, data studied here showed "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa".

The new data could provide a target for the Europa Clipper mission, which may launch as early as June 2022.

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"We saw very peculiar changes in the magnetic signal, something I don't think has been explained in the past", team member Xianzhe Jia from the University of MI tells Nadia Drake at National Geographic.

"We saw very peculiar changes in the magnetic signal, something I don't think has been explained in the past", Jia says.

The presence of the plume means the moon is geologically active, which is promising for the possibility of alien life in the sunless sea.

Galileo found Europa's magnetic field intensified and shifted orientation just as the spacecraft made its closest approach to the moon. The team, led by Xianzhe Jia, zeroed in one particular flyby of Europa on December 16th, 1997 in which the spacecraft was just 206 km (128 miles) above the moon's surface.

To make sense of those measurements and ensure they were not merely due to background fluctuations produced by Jupiter itself, Jia and his team compared them with computer simulations of how a plume would affect the plasma and magnetic field around Europa along the path Galileo took. "We realized we had to go back", Jia, who is also the lead author of the study, said in a statement. The detailed discovery has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Europa has always been thought to cover a salty ocean about twice the size of our planet's.

Recently, evidence has been building that Europa may have a plume as well.

That region was in an area where the Hubble Space Telescope had spotted repeated evidence of plumes.

Europa Clipper's instruments will be capable of "sniffing" the atmosphere of Europa, with more than 40 planned flybys. "We can even collect dust particles". "We'll surely see something we totally don't expect at Europa".

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