New Evidence of Water Plumes at Europa

NASA reports that scientists re-examining data from an old mission brought new insights to the question of whether Jupiter’s moon Europa has the ingredients to support life. 

According to space scientists, the data provide independent evidence that the moon’s subsurface liquid water reservoir ... which may be subsurface lakes or a subsurface ocean ... may be venting plumes of water vapor above Europa's icy shell. 

Scientists say the discovery was the result of detective work meant to solve a mystery literally surrounding Europa.

Scientists say NASA's Galileo spacecraft, in 1997, recorded a brief localized bend in Europa's magnetic field ... something that had remained a mysterious event.

Ultraviolet images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2012 suggested the presence of water or ice plumes, which could have answered the mystery of the magnetic bend.

But scientists needed more, and they got more.

Scientists say a new analysis used data collected much closer to the source and that analysis is considered strong, corroborating support for these plumes. 

Scientists say, as is the case with any good mystery, the answers were there ... in plain sight. 

It just took advanced computer modeling to help scientists see how all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

The findings appeared in Monday’s issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

At the time of the 1997 flyby which captured the bend in Europa's magnetic field, the Galileo team said they didn't suspect the spacecraft might be grazing a plume erupting from the icy moon. 

But the relatively recent discovery of similar plumes from Saturn's moon Enceladus indicated that might have been exactly the case.

In the case of Enceladus, material in plumes becomes ionized in the vacuum of space, and that leaves a characteristic "blip" in the magnetic field.

The magnetic blip bore an astounding similarity to the one seen over Europa. 

Combined with the new insights into the Europa fly-by data and the Hubble Space Telescope observations of 2012, scientists say they got their "eureka" moment and see a compelling case for the presence of Europa plumes.

The findings are good news for the Europa Clipper mission, which may launch as early as June 2022. 

From its orbit of Jupiter, Europa Clipper will sail close by the moon in rapid, low-altitude flybys. 

If plumes are indeed spewing vapor from Europa’s ocean or subsurface lakes, Europa Clipper could sample the frozen liquid and dust particles. 

That, in turn, will help investigators learn if Europa has the ingredients for life to arise.


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