Jovian moon Europa is squirting jets of water vapor into space
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have imaged what may be water vapor plumes squirting off the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The finding strengthens other Hubble observations suggesting the icy moon erupts with high altitude water vapor plumes.
The latest observation may facilitate future explorations to the Jovian moon to collect samples of Europa’s ocean without having to drill through miles of ice.
“Europa’s ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may provide another way to sample Europa’s subsurface.”
“The atmosphere of an extrasolar planet blocks some of the starlight that is behind it,” Sparks explained. “If there is a thin atmosphere around Europa, it has the potential to block some of the light of Jupiter, and we could see it as a silhouette. And so we were looking for absorption features around the limb of Europa as it transited the smooth face of Jupiter.”
In 10 separate occurrences spanning 15 months, the team observed Europa passing in front of Jupiter. They saw what could be plumes erupting on three of these occasions.
This work provides supporting evidence for water plumes on Europa. In 2012, a team led by Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, detected evidence of water vapor erupting from the frigid south polar region of Europa and reaching more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) into space. Although both teams used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph instrument, each used a totally independent method to arrive at the same conclusion.
If confirmed, Europa would be the second moon in the solar system known to have water vapor plumes. In 2005, NASA’s Cassini orbiter detected jets of water vapor and dust spewing off the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
The work by Sparks and his colleagues will be published in the Sept. 29 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.
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