NASA: Ocean World Europa Is Almost Certainly Venting Water Plumes into Space

Composite NASA image showing plume come from Europa's southern hemisphere at the 7:00 o'clock position. Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Composite NASA image showing plume come from Europa’s southern hemisphere at the 7:00 o’clock position.
Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

NASA today announced further evidence supporting the existence of plumes erupting from the global salt water ocean which is believed to exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The discovery is based on a series of observations in the extreme ultra-violet end of the visible light spectrum as Europa passed in front of Jupiter during its the course of its 3.5 day orbit in 2014. In the technique employed, which is drawn from the one astronomers uses to study exo-planets around other stars, the solar system’s largest planet served light source and the perfect backdrop to provide the contrast needed to see the plumes. Altogether, ten images were taken, three of which showed the plumes, which NASA scientists believe are all but certain to be coming from the ocean below, and for which there is no other plausible explanation.

In 2011, a separate team, also using Hubble, but in a different capacity, announced the discovery of spectrographic evidence showing water’s constituent elements hydrogen and oxygen coming from the ice covered world. Taken together, the two findings serve to corroborate each other, and to build the case that the plumes, which have been spotted in both southerly and equatorial locations, are intermittent in nature, and not a steady phenomenon.

Scientists do not yet understand the exact mechanism of the event, and during a media teleconference held today to discuss the findings, stressed the fact that there are multiple scenarios which could account for the plumes, ranging from direct eruptions from the sub surface ocean far below, to somewhat more localized sources called “Connemara Chaos” in reference to the wild topography of Europa’s heavily fractured ice-tossed surface.

Although NASA currently has the Juno spacecraft operating at Jupiter, it is not focused on Europa and is of limited use in that regard. What the agency needs, and hopes to achieve full funding for over the next few years is the Europa Flyby Mission, which would launch with 9 instruments trained on the enigmatic world made all the more famous by Arthur C. Clarke in the Space Odyssey series, and which is believed to hold a greater volume of liquid water than exists on Earth.

Today’s announcement certainly helps build the case for the flyby mission, which already has a vocal and instrumental supporter in Congress in Texas legislator Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Smith has repeatedly chastened NASA for not requesting funding a Europa mission at the level necessary to move it from the pre-formulation phase into full development.

Today’s findings also opens the door even wider for a more fully fledged mission concept which could potentially see a lander descend to an area of Europa’s surface blanketed by the plume’s eruptions in order to search for possible signs of there, freeing mission designers from the daunting challenge of figuring out how to drill down to reach the ocean miles below.

As intriguing as the opportunity sounds, it still may not be enough. With Europa being constantly washed in a steady rain of deadly radiation trapped by Jupiter’s strong magnetic field, any sign of biological activity taking place in the protected environment of the subsurface ocean could be exceedingly difficult to by the time it reached the Moon’s surface.

The full NASA press release is here.

Posted in: Outer Planets

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