NASA spacecraft provides new evidence of water plumes on Jupiter's moon, Europa

15 May 2018, 10:22 | Shawn Tate

Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest

Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space

The 20-year-old data supports the findings of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which uncovered clues of possible water plumes in the same "hotspot" on Europa during its observations of Jupiter's moon in 2014 and 2016. Jia layered the magnetometry and plasma wave signatures into new 3D modeling developed by his team at the University of MI, which simulated the interactions of plasma with solar system bodies.

Imaginary illustration of four best known Jupiter moons.

During the 1997 flyby, the probe was just 124 miles above Europa's surface, and may have "grazed" a plume erupting from the icy surface. But researchers suspected that Europa may have lakes under its icy crust that made it worthy of investigation.

"The data were there, but we needed sophisticated modeling to make sense of the observation", Jia explained in the NASA news release. When the team examined the information gathered during that flyby, sure enough, high-resolution magnetometer data showed something unusual.

The decision to take a second look was prompted by two recent developments. A previous study based on ultraviolet images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope suggested the presence of plumes. Gravity maps confirmed the plumes originated from the moon's surface.

One author of the study published this week was Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of MI. The readings were spot on for what would be expected if Galileo had flown through a salty plume.

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NASA's famous Galileo spacecraft studied the environment around Jupiter and its moons between 1995 and 2003.

The findings are not definitive, however.

If Galileo already flew within the immediate vicinity of the jets without even trying, NASA could certainly achieve the same feat with a new probe created to specifically to sample the icy plumes in the hunt for microbial life or some other organic proof that something is alive in Europa's depths. The craft will use ice-penetrating radar to peer under Europa's shell and will make 45 flybys of the moon, getting as close as 16 miles. Or, maybe when the powerful James Webb Space Telescope finally launches (it has been pushed back several times), it will get a clearer picture of what is happening on the alien moon. What warmth there is comes largely from tidal kneading driven by the massive gravitational forces that come with an orbit around Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. It was also embargoed until today (May 14) by Nature Astronomy. Kivelson also is a co-investigator.

This news is exciting for multiple reasons. However, it may have given the journal more visibility than it would have gotten otherwise. Schmidt, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, is also one of the architects of the project that became the Europa Clipper mission. That is more than twice what NASA requested for Clipper ($265 million) and it requested no funding for the lander, which it is not planning to build despite Culberson's direction. McGrath is part of the Europa Clipper science team, too.

The full committee will mark up the bill on Thursday. When Jia and his team sifted through the observations of plasma and magnetic wave fluctuations Galileo picked up on Europa, Jia and his team were able to confirm that, yes, the geysers did, in fact, exist. The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch its Jupiter ICy Moons Explorer (JUICE) in 2022, with arrival in 2029.



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