Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest
Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest
Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space
15 May, 2018, 04:11
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. "To go from there to also there are geysers coming up from that ocean, we just weren't ready for that", Kivelson says.
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.
A new look at old data is giving scientists a fresh reason to view Europa, a moon of Jupiter, as a leading candidate in the search for life beyond Earth, with evidence of water plumes shooting into space. If enough evidence of water plumes is found, NASA (and other space agencies, we must assume) will investigate further, maybe someday bringing back samples. That Hubble data, however, wasn't definitive proof of erupting plumes because it's such a hard observation to make from Earth's orbit. Jia and his team took an in-depth look at information the probe gathered during the closest of these encounters - a 1997 flyby that brought Galileo within 128 miles (206 km) of the moon's frigid, fractured surface.
The Galileo spacecraft before it was deployed on it way to Jupiter.
"These results provide strong independent evidence of the presence of plumes at Europa", they wrote in Nature.
"The idea that Europa might possess plumes seems to be becoming more and more real, and that's very good news for future exploration", saidXianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI and the lead author of the new paper on the phenomenon. The Cassini mission caught sight of plumes erupting from Saturn's moon Enceladus.
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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. If NASA (and the rest of us who care about the search for alien life) get lucky, those jets may be on when the Europa Clipper reaches its destination and starts its science work. Before heading to a meeting of scientists working on the Clipper mission, a thought occurred to Dr. McGrath: "Gee, I really should check to see if any of them line up with any of the claimed plume detections", from Hubble.
The results of the Clipper and JUICE missions, he continued, "could have huge implications" - nudging us Earthlings closer to understanding whether we are alone.
Researchers have long-thought that Europa's sea could play host to microbial life, but unless we get a sample of that water and analyze it, we'll never know if it's actually habitable.
But sending a robot craft to land on Europa and drill through its surface would be a much more costly and complicated endeavour than, say, flying through a plume of water ejected from the moon's innards, and measuring its composition.
However, according to Phillips, that kind of mission also has its limitations when it comes to discerning habitability. 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. "It's much more likely that any plumes would come from a water pocket or "lake" contained within the ice shell, closer to the surface", Phillips added.
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