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Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest

Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest

Researchers believe that Europa contains a global salt water ocean under its crust.

This discovery all but confirms Europa should be considered a high-priority peer of another "ocean world" in the outer solar system, namely Saturn's moon Enceladus, which also sports an even more dramatic plume.

New research offers additional evidence of plumes emanating from Europa's subsurface ocean.

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. The astronomers later found that during the said close flyby, Galileo's magnetometer and plasma wave spectrometer were able to measure significant changes.

So scientists instead returned to Galileo, which on 16 December 1997 made its closest approach to Europa, flying only 400 kilometers above its surface.

An artist's illustration of a plume of water vapour from Jupiter's moon Europa.

A new study reveals evidence that Jupiter's icy moon Europa is sending plumes of water into space. Mike Brown, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology, said in a tweet he is a "big Europa fan", but "so far, all of the evidence for plumes on Europa has been hopeful, rather than truly convincing". The problem is, landing a spacecraft on Europa and drilling through the mile or more of ice on its surface is an expensive and technologically challenging feat.

NASA will get a close-up look from a new spacecraft during its Europa Clipper mission that could launch as soon as June 2022, providing a possible opportunity to sample plumes for signs of life, perhaps microbial, from its ocean. By and large, those model predictions matched their observations, ruling out Jupiter as the source and strengthening the case for watery plumes erupting from Europa's depths.

One ardent supporter of a mission to Europa, Texas Congressman John Culberson, broke the embargo on this news last week during a Congressional hearing on NASA's budget.

The new data, reported in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy, was examined by a team led by the University of MI.

According to a study published today in the journal Nature Astronomy, the Galileo spacecraft detected what seems to be a massive water plume shooting out into space from Europa during one of its 11 flybys of Jupiter's moon conducted between 1995 and 2003. That makes it one of the most enticing worlds in our solar system where life could be hiding.

"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. This would let the scientists search molecules, which could be capable of supporting the formation of life there.

This literal "hotspot" where the plumes happen shows the warmest temperatures on the planet that is otherwise minus 279 degrees Fahrenheit.

But the sensitivity of telescopic data is limited, and more was needed to be sure that these were really plumes, the researchers said.

"That's the moment where we realized that we might have something in the old Galileo data that we never paid much attention to", Jia says.

"If plumes exist, and we can directly sample what's coming from the interior of Europa, then we can more easily get at whether Europa has the ingredients for life", he said in a statement.

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