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New evidence for water plumes on Jupiter's moon, Europa

15 May 2018

She says her team had already made the outlandish but ultimately accurate suggestion that there was a liquid ocean under Europa's icy crust.

The question of whether plumes of water vapor and icy materials erupt on Europa has circulated for decades. NASA's Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency's Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) are slated to launch in the early to mid-2020s, both armed with high-resolution cameras and a suite of other sensitive instruments.

The scientists also pinpointed the location of the plume on Europa's surface.

Scientists have suspected since 2012 that Europa might harbor plumes, after the Hubble Space Telescope observed water vapor spouting above the moon's frigid south pole.

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This time around though, the team knew how to spot the telltale signs of a plume, having studied them on Saturn's similarly-icy moon, Enceladus. Even so, Europa's eruptions could be equally as dense as its cousin's, and easily visible by an orbiting spacecraft. Schmidt, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, is also one of the architects of the project that became the Europa Clipper mission. One flyby in December 1997 came within 400 kilometers of the surface-much closer than Hubble, which in low Earth orbit is at least 600 million kilometers away. Computer simulations created by Xianzhe Jia, a space scientist at the University of MI, showed that a 120-mile-high geyser erupting from a relatively warm patch on Europa would create precisely the same readings. "The data is there, publicly available for nearly 20 years", Jia says. The mission will also carry a magnetometer to measure the strength and direction of the moon's magnetic field, which will allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean. In the sequence of numbers produced by those two instruments, they immediately spotted something unusual: Anomalous blips, lasting about three minutes, centred around Galileo's closest approach to the moon.

"And it's those electrically charged parts of the plume that cause the changes in the magnetic field and change the density of the electrons in the environment that were measured by the plasma wave instrument". Now, Jia and his team believe, its path was fortuitous. The Galileo observations matched the simulation nearly perfectly.

Unlike on Earth, however, this ocean is deep enough to cover the whole surface of Europa, and being far from the sun, the ocean surface is globally frozen over. "It's very interesting that one can look at old data like these with new analysis tools like models and simulations. That's what is starting to convince people".

The newly analyzed Galileo data could help solidify evidence for the plume's existence.

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'These results provide strong independent evidence of the presence of plumes at Europa, ' researchers wrote.

SOLAR SYSTEM 101 - How many planets are in the solar system? "We needed to see whether there was anything in the data that could tell us whether or not there was a plume".

What does this mean for the Clipper spacecraft? That would give it unprecedented access to visuals of plumes and the ability to taste of their water for salts, organic compounds, and other chemicals. What it finds will be anyone's guess. The mission's primary sponsor in Congress, Representative John Culberson (R-TX), could not his hold back his glee last week in a hearing for a spending bill that supported the mission-breaking the journal's embargo in the process: "The science community has wanted to go there for years, Mr. Chairman", Culberson said, "and this bill makes that happen". "We'll surely see something we totally don't expect at Europa".

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New evidence for water plumes on Jupiter's moon, Europa