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Europa’s Watery Plumes Are Spewing 100+ Miles into Space
published during a waxing gibbous moon.
10/11/2016

Europa's Watery Plumes

Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Out of context, the misty surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa looks like a place where a unicorn Patronus goes to nap. The reality is just as mystical and likely soundtracked by Enya: Using the power of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers captured images of water vapor plumes spewing over a hundred miles into space.

Credit: NASA Goddard

If an extraterrestrial smog sounds boring, these plumes have the potential to spurt out life from Europa’s suspected salty global ocean that’s estimated to be twice the volume of Earth’s. And that would make sampling the ocean considerably easier for a craft to collect. The study published in the Astrophysical Journal last week is more evidence of plumes, which were first detected a few years ago.

Europa's Watery Plumes

Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScl)

Besides Earth, Europa is actually one of the most plausible sites in the solar system that can host life outside the classic “habitable zone.” But besides the extraordinary technology that’s required for a craft to visit a celestial body, instruments would have to be able to drill through the moon’s ice — a shell that has unknown and possibly varying thicknesses. The vapor, which erupts upwards of about 125 miles (or 200 km), likely rains back onto Europa’s surface, giving a craft ample opportunities to nab particles and study its composition.

Credit: NASA Goddard

Hubble, which is on an extension of its initial mission (bonus science!), imaged Europa in ultraviolet light as the moon transited across Jupiter. Of the ten transits, which is when a space body crosses in front of another, the team identified possible vapor silhouettes in three of them. The plumes matched observations made in 2012 in mass, height, and their appearance near Europa’s south polar region.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is known to have water vapor plumes, too, but with ice and dust particles, which Cassini saw nearly a decade ago. Europa, meanwhile, only has hinted at water vapor. Plans to scan Europa’s Patronus haven are in very much in gear: NASA might use the badass James Webb Space Telescope’s infrared capabilities when it launches in 2018, and a spacecraft is also planned to launch in the 2020s and complete 45 flybys. The European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) will also tour Europa along with its Galilean companions Ganymede and Callisto in 2030.