Published: Tue, May 15, 2018
Science | By Joan Schultz

Life on Jupiter's moon? Europa's plumes suggest so

Life on Jupiter's moon? Europa's plumes suggest so

During the years after Galileo, the Hubble Space Telescope has, from time to time, observed the Jovian system.

Others found the evidence more compelling. The probe reportedly orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003 and was able to detect potential plumes coming from the planet's icy moon Europa during a close flyby in 1997.

But the probe never directly encountered any of that water - or so scientists thought at the time.

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

"There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa", Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, points out in a statement.

The implications could be enormous.

The Galileo spacecraft of NASA traveled hundred twenty-five miles atop the Jupiter moon, Europa's surface on 19 December in the year 1997.

For nearly two decades, researchers have suspected liquid water lies below the icy shell of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

What won't be discussed, nearly assuredly, is any discovery of aliens or life forms in Europa's oceans. They believed these fluctuations might be due to perturbations from a water plume in the plasma surrounding the Moon.

But we've also learned that life finds a way in the harshest of Earth's environments, like vents in the deepest parts of the ocean floor.

The likely water plume was signaled by a thermal anomaly picked up by the probe's Plasma Wave Spectrometer close to the moon's equator, in the middle of a "hotspot" area stretching over 200 miles (320 km). But until now, solid evidence has been hard to come by.

In 2017 the Hubble Space Telescope spotted plumes shooting from the moon.

The discovery was made after a team of researchers analyzed the data gathered by NASA's Galileo Jupiter probe.

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

Flying at 6km (3.7 miles) a second Galileo made its closest ever flyby, shooting across the surface at an altitude of 200km (125 miles) when it detected something odd. "It just so happened that the spacecraft passed through a region where we saw plumes".

The study, led by Xianzhe Jia, of the University of MI, seems to confirm an idea that had already arisen from observations of the Hubble Space Telescope taken in 2012.

"These results provide strong independent evidence of the presence of plumes at Europa", they wrote.

"Even with our wildest imagination, we always see stuff that we totally did not expect", McGrath says.

The European Space Agency also is planning a mission, known as JUICE, for JUpiter ICy moons Exlorer, that will arrive in 2029 and spend three years studying the planet, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. But that still means an orbiting spacecraft, like the Europa Clipper mission that's tentatively scheduled to launch in the early 2020s, could sample a plume and get a glimpse of what lies beneath the moon's ruddy, crisscrossed rind.

USA legislators this month TO approved a bill that would give $US545 million to the Europa Clipper mission.

While the Galileo mission never focused on water plumes shooting from Europa, Xianzhe Jia, the lead researcher behind the study from the University of MI, thought that maybe the data collected by Hubble corroborated with that collected by the orbiter and could provide evidence of water plumes erupting from the moon. That would give it unprecedented access to visuals of plumes and the ability to taste of their water for salts, organic compounds, and other chemicals.

He added: "If there's life at Europa, it'd nearly certainly be an independently evolved form of life".

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