Europa's plumes make Jupiter moon a prime candidate for life

Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space

The case for a giant plume of water vapor wafting from Jupiter's potentially life-supporting moon Europa just got a lot stronger.

Back in 1997 the Galileo Jupiter probe skimmed the watery moon of Europa and now it appears it got a facefull from a water plume 1,000km (621 miles) wide.

"There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa", said Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Before ending its mission in 2003 with a planned crash into Jupiter's atmosphere, Galileo reported the first data suggestive of a liquid water ocean under Europa's surface.

"When we first saw those images, I think a lot of us in the community were very excited", says planetary scientists Xianzhe Jia from the University of MI.

It is thought to have an iron core, a rocky mantle and a surface ocean of salty water, like Earth. The mission, called the Europa Clipper, aims to closely observe Europa, a distant moon of Jupiter, and could answer lingering questions about whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system. They believe that this may also point to evidence of life on the moon. The particles that are spread by the plumes will be found in the atmosphere of Europa. In late 2012, Hubble spotted signs of such a feature near the moon's south pole. But as powerful as Hubble is, seeing something as small as a plume on a moon more than 380-million miles away is hard. "They're like a battery, combining both positive and negative to make an energy source", says Alison Murray, a biologist at the Desert Research Institute who studies organisms in extreme environments but did not take part in the research.

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Scientists thought that they may have been able to find data about water plume in Galileo's data. So a team of USA astronomers went back and took a second look at data collected by the Galileo spacecraft during its eight-year stay in the Jovian system.

Old data from the Jupiter probe Galileo shows that it flew through a water plume on the moon of Europa.

The researchers found that, during this flyby, Galileo detected a significant change in Europa's magnetic field, as well as a brief but big increase in the density of plasma, or ionized gas.

"Given the evidence of plumes available so far, there is a good chance that those spacecraft may obtain direct measurements of plumes ejecting material from the subsurface ocean into space", said Jia. For example, in the 2014 and 2016 candidate detections, the possible plumes blocked some ultraviolet light emitted by Jupiter. And while NASA already has plans to explore Europa, this is the most heartening sign of life that planetary scientists have been waiting for. For starters, Jia said, the Galileo mission team wasn't specifically looking for plumes. "We needed to see whether there was anything in the data that could tell us whether or not there was a plume". So Jia, Kivelson and their colleagues ran the data through a sophisticated modelling program that compared the observations with what scientists might expect to see from a plume of the dimensions reported by Hubble.

"A signature located in the MAG data acquired at Galileo's closest encounter with Europe is totally consistent with the expected disturbances if the spacecraft were to pass through a plume that rises above the nearby surface", states the science team's members in the study's report.

If we're going to find extraterrestrial life inside of our own Solar System there's only a handful of places where scientists believe we might find it. Some have suggested that there might be a subsurface lake hiding between layers of Europa's thick ice sheets.

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