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15 May 2018, 01:43 | Edward Lowe
Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest
Data from a 20 year old mission to Jupiter suggests that our next sojourn to the planet could reveal whether one of its icy moons may host life.
Now, citing data collected by Nasa'sGalileo probe more than two decades ago, scientists report that giant jets of water are spouting more than 160 kilometres off that moon's surface.
The newly analyzed Galileo data provides "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa", saidstudy lead author Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of MI.
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.
At 1,900 miles (3,100 kilometers) wide, Europa is slightly smaller than Earth's moon.
It's also not just Europa - Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan are also top priorities for extraterrestrial life in our solar system, and they're also frozen moons with a subsurface ocean of liquid water. Scientists have been looking for proof of suspected water plumes emerging from Europa but haven't been able to prove it.
"We know that Europa has a lot of the ingredients necessary for life, certainly for life as we know it". The particles that are spread by the plumes will be found in the atmosphere of Europa. He learned that they were near the equator of Europa, a region Galileo had flown directly over in 1997.
As suggestive as these results were, they didn't represent a definitive Europa plume discovery, researchers said at the time. Galileo, the spacecraft sent to gather information about Jupiter and its moons that plunged to its demise in 2003, collected it way back then, but scientists have only just now gotten around to analyzing the truly monumental pile of data.
During its time at Jupiter, Galileo performed 11 flybys of Europa.
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. During this flyby, which dropped below 400 km altitude, the shuttle's magnetic instruments detected some unusual magnetic waves and plasma - which they interpreted as a plume. But as powerful as Hubble is, seeing something as small as a plume on a moon more than 380-million miles away is hard. For example, in the 2014 and 2016 candidate detections, the possible plumes blocked some ultraviolet light emitted by Jupiter.
"The data were there, but we needed sophisticated modeling to make sense of the observation", Jia explained in the NASA news release. The agency is developing a $2 billion Jupiter-orbiting mission called Europa Clipper, which is scheduled to launch in the early to mid-2020s.
Europa's frozen surface has always been thought to cover a salty ocean about twice the size of our planet's. It appears that during some of those periodic observations, the telescope spotted evidence of water vapor emissions coming from Europa's surface.
'If we can collect a sample of the water, we may determine whether microbial life exists, how it evolved, and how it continues to live in this cold environment with no connection to the atmosphere'. Ephemeral plumes could make it tough to plan sample-snagging flybys.
The results were in "satisfying agreement", Jia said.
"On one particular pass by Europa, the spacecraft came very, very close to the surface - as I remember less than 150 kilometers (93 miles) above the surface - and it was on that pass that we saw signatures that we never really understood", said Margaret Kivelson, professor emerita of space physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, on NASA TV.
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