Europa, Jupiter's Ocean Moon, May Shoot Plumes of Water Into Space

ImageNASA’s Galileo spacecraft appears to have flown through a plume erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa more than 20 years

Inspired by the Hubble images and discussions of planned missions to revisit Europa, Jia and his team dusted off the data from two instruments onboard Galileo, gathered during the spacecraft's 11 close passes around the moon. Before heading to a meeting of scientists working on the Clipper mission, a thought occurred to Dr. McGrath: "Gee, I really should check to see if any of them line up with any of the claimed plume detections", from Hubble.

A new study detailing findings of plumes on Europa was published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, in conjunction with a NASA news conference at its headquarters in Washington. "It's very interesting that one can look at old data like these with new analysis tools like models and simulations".

The research, headed by University of MI space physicist Xianzhe Jia, was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Margaret Kivelson, a space physicist at the University of California at Los Angeles who was principal investigator for Galileo's magnetometer, confirmed his hunch.

In the meantime, evidence that Galileo flew through a plume of water vapor jetting from the interior of Europa has fired imaginations. "This is very likely to be the result of a plume, making it the best direct evidence for such an occurrence yet".

"The idea that Europa might possess plumes seems to be becoming more and more real, and that's very good news for future exploration", said Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI and the lead author of the new paper on the phenomenon.

"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.

Scientists have previously identified Europa as a prime target in the search for extraterrestrial life, suggesting the moon's ocean could host communities of microbes. In the sequence of numbers produced by those two instruments, they immediately spotted something unusual: Anomalous blips, lasting about three minutes, centred around Galileo's closest approach to the moon.

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"We know that Europa has a lot of the ingredients necessary for life as we know it".

They also looked at the Hubble observations for dimensions of the plumes and Galileo's Plasma Wave Spectrometer data, which measured signatures of plasma waves that are caused by charged particles in the gases around Europa's atmosphere. The team, led by Xianzhe Jia, zeroed in one particular flyby of Europa on December 16th, 1997 in which the spacecraft was just 206 km (128 miles) above the moon's surface. "It's wonderful how hard it is to anticipate something that just hasn't happened before", she said.

The lumes will offer a vital insight into the waters below the crust of Europa. Would it use the same chemistry to store and use energy? Then the Galileo mission reached Europa in 1996, and Kivelson's detections revealed that there was an ocean on another planet. For years Culberson has advocated for both Europa missions, ensuring they are present and accounted for in multiple budget bills.

Xianzhe Jia, a planetary scientist at the University of MI, heard astronomers suspected the plumes sat on the moon's equator, but couldn't get a good look at them with the Hubble Space Telescope, he told NPR.

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.

In May 2017, the SETI Institute's Melissa McGrath gave a presentation at one of the Europa Clipper science team meetings.

NASA officials have also said they'd like Clipper to dive through Europa's putative plumes, if possible, to potentially grab fresh samples of the moon's ocean (if plume material is indeed coming directly from that ocean). That's the big picture.

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