Published: Tue, May 15, 2018
Science | By Cecil Little

Plumes of ocean spray are emanating from Jupiter's moon Europa

Plumes of ocean spray are emanating from Jupiter's moon Europa

During this pass, the spacecraft's magnetometer measured significant changes, as did Galileo's plasma wave spectrometer.

However, a new study seeking evidence of water plumes on the surface of Jupiter's Moon Europa demonstrates that, even now, Galileo is providing valuable information.

Jia explained that the data obtained by Galileo contained "peculiar signals in both the magnetic field and plasma wave data", that seemed to support their water plume theory, but other NASA scientists still aren't convinced that this 20-year-old data paired with recent Hubble telescope observations prove the existence of any present water plumes. Material jetted from a plume and snowing back down onto the moon's surface would make landing sites in close proximity to the plume the most prized spots.

The Galileo data were collected in 1997 during a Europa flyby at an altitude of less than 250 miles.

One flypast that stood out showed a drop in the strength of the magnetic field and a higher amount of particles in the moon's atmosphere.

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The data was captured on Galileo's closest encounter with the moon on December 16, 1997, and has now been re-examined for evidence that a blip in the data it captured was caused when it crossed a water plume. "But there are lots of energetic particles in the environment of Europa and they ionize the material, so they make it an electrically charged". The flybys will be less than 228 miles above the surface, which is in the observed range of the plumes, which can reach 124 to 228 miles above the surface.

The newly analyzed Galileo data provides "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa", said study lead author Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of MI.

Not everyone is convinced.

"These results provide strong independent evidence of the presence of plumes at Europa", they wrote. "I'd love there to be plumes, but I think we should all retain a healthier skepticism here". But many other attempted observations have turned up dry. Morgan Cable, an astrochemist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Scientific American "up until this paper, I was very skeptical the plume existed".

The revelations Monday came after scientists revisited a puzzling reading from an instrument aboard Galileo, which in 1995 became the first spacecraft to enter the orbit of a gas giant planet. During that time, the spacecraft made 11 flybys of Europa, including one in which it came to within a few hundred kilometers of the moon's surface.

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That's still not exactly easy, but it is less complicated than asking a probe to fly all the way to Europa, safely land, burrow through a miles-thick crust of rock-hard ice, and then get to work being an extraterrestrial ocean explorer.

Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus are showcasing some of these key ingredients for life in their oceans, which is why researchers believe they are the best chance for finding life beyond Earth in our own solar system.

That's particularly exciting because it also suggests that Europa may have an energy source propelling the water skyward.

The find has big implications for the Europa Clipper, a probe now under development by NASA and expected to launch in the early 2020s.

An artist image of the planned NASA space mission to fly over the Jupiter Moon Europa.

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To determine whether Europa is indeed life-friendly and to look for possible evidence of those organisms themselves, scientists want spacecraft much more powerful than Galileo to return to the moon. Not only do the plumes suggest that subsurface ocean likely exists, but it also means the Clipper, and any future mission, can just fly through the spewing mist for a sample, instead of hacking through the icy crust.

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