NASA spacecraft provides new evidence of water plumes on Europa

NASA spacecraft provides new evidence of water plumes on Europa

It's a hugely exciting finding, not just because it's only the second known example of a natural waterpark in space.

The Galileo spacecraft carried a Plasma Wave Spectrometer (PWS) to measure plasma waves caused by charged particles in gases around Europa's atmosphere.

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.

Water plumes support the idea that underneath Europa's ice-crested surface, there's a massive expanse of subterranean ocean.

Europa is our best shot of finding biological life in the solar system, researchers say.

The researchers initially suspected Europa's surface to be releasing water by seeing the images received with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope.

They layered the magnetometry and plasma wave signatures into new 3D modelling developed at the University of MI in the U.S., which simulated the interactions of plasma with solar system bodies. The model simulations that included plumes from Europa closely matched the Galileo data, but the model without them did not.

To delve into more into ejection of a plume from Europa. If researchers want to know if some form of life has indeed taken root inside the planet, studying those plumes may be the easiest way to prove it. They know that the plumes are shorter than those on Enceladus. Plumes from the surface means that the ice is warm.

The result that emerged, with a simulated plume, was a match to the magnetic field and plasma signatures the team pulled from the Galileo data. SLS can send the probes directly to Jupiter instead of requiring gravity-assists from other planets, significantly shortening the trip time. Jia also is co-investigator for two instruments that will travel aboard Europa Clipper.

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"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", said Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist.

But this will also likely be the hardest question to tackle. However, the picture was so faint that they were regarded as very weak evidence to arrive at any conclusion regarding the existence of the plume. Europa is regularly hit by meteorites that could deliver compounds, and the moon is surrounded by deadly radiation that might kill off anything trying to get by.

Thus, the scientists discovered that the thermal and magnetic anomalies recorded in 1997 by Galileo corresponded to the region where Hubble identified the steam plume.

Galileo came much closer during its 11 flybys of Europa.

With 3-D modeling to tie all these factors together, the data signature lined up perfectly to suggest that during the 1997 flyby, Galileo flew through a plume, Kivelson said.

Jia and his colleagues are now working on the magnetic field and plasma instruments for two future missions aimed at studying Jupiter and its moons.

Now NASA is planning a mission - named Europa Clipper -to fly over the distant world in the 2020s for a closer look.

But it wasn't until a year ago, at a conference for boffins planning the Europa Clipper spacecraft that's due to head out to the mysterious moon in 2022, that Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI put the pieces together and chose to revisit the Galileo data. Still, Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor at the University of MI, guessed that there may be clues lurking in the information that was beamed back. "They have a huge potential, of course, for collecting very useful data", he told Newsweek.

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