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Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have imaged what may be water vapor plumes erupting off the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
The plumes are estimated to rise about 125 miles (200 kilometers) before, presumably, raining back down onto Europa’s surface. Europa has a huge global ocean containing twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, but it is protected by a layer of extremely cold and hard ice of unknown thickness. The plumes provide a tantalizing opportunity to gather samples originating from under the surface without having to land or drill through
through miles of ice.
The team, led by William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore observed these finger-like projections while viewing Europa’s limb as the moon passed in front of Jupiter.
The original goal of the team’s observing proposal was to determine whether Europa has a thin, extended atmosphere, or exosphere.
“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.
Scientists may use the infrared vision of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018, to confirm venting or plume activity on Europa. NASA also is formulating a mission to Europa with a payload that could confirm the presence of plumes and study them from close range during multiple flybys.
So what to take note of this is that if those plumes really exist, then we have a better way to sample one of the most promising places for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System.
The gif is an artist impression from this NASA Goddard video, and the image shows the water vapor plumes erupting at the 7 o’clock position of Europa.
Credits: Goddard/Katrina Jackson, NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center