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Europa, Jupiter's Ocean Moon, May Shoot Plumes of Water Into Space

Europa, Jupiter's Ocean Moon, May Shoot Plumes of Water Into Space

Launched in 1989, Galileo became the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter six years later.

Almost 15 years have passed since NASA sent its Galileo spacecraft flying into Jupiter's outer atmosphere to die-eliminating the possibility of contaminating nearby Jovian moons with any traces of Earth bacteria.

But the probe never directly encountered any of that water - or so scientists thought at the time. One of those times, in the year 1997, Galileo flew within 128 miles of Europa.

In a paper in the journal Nature Astronomy Jia describes how his team build custom 3D modelling code to work out a plume's density and properties, adding in the magnetic data from the Enceladus plume probe.

The research team behind the study notes that this new finding makes Europa one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for life.

The implications could be enormous.

If the existence of the plumes is confirmed and they are linked to Europa's ocean, they could provide a tantalizingly straightforward way to sample the moon in search of signs of life. "Observations of plumes may tell us a lot about whether or not Europa's ocean has the ingredients suitable for life". Nutrients sprayed onto the ice by the nearby volcanic moon Io, the thinking goes, may sink down to the ocean floor and serve as food. If life has gained what passes for a foothold on Europa, it may be huddled around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean in a world of frigid, perpetual night.

The Galileo data are consistent with earlier observations by the Hubble Space Telescope that captured signs of presumed plumes at the limits of detectability. The experiments showed Europa possesses an atmosphere. They found that a sudden blast of water from the Jovian moon explained the Galileo probe's odd measurements.

Last month researchers found two lakes hidden under thick ice in Canada that could be similar to the conditions found on Jupiter's moon Europa.

Whereas Galileo didn't know that it was flying through a plume and was incapable of collecting material from the plume, Europa Clipper will be able to gather material from plumes if it can fly through them. Second, these plumes mean that a spacecraft could have easy access to Europa's water without having to drill through its ice crust.

Furthermore, the new analysis reveals that the Galileo probe may have actually passed through the giant water plume in 1997, when the spacecraft came as close as 124 miles (200 km) from Europa's surface.

"With the Hubble data in hand", Dr. Kivelson said, "we had an idea of how big a plume might be reasonable".

Recently, evidence has been building that Europa may have a plume as well.

"One of the locations she mentioned rang a bell", says Xianzhe Jia, lead author of the new study. "We can analyse the particles and the gases to get a detailed composition of Europa's interior".

Kivelson, who hadn't considered such a plume when she collected the data two decades ago, marveled at the new discovery.

The European Space Agency's spacecraft, called the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), is scheduled to launch in 2022 and reach Jupiter in 2030.

Scientists believe Jupiter's moon Europa has a greater life-supporting potential than previously thought, and NASA is planning to send a spacecraft to investigate. There it will perform 45 flybys past Europa, getting as close as 16 miles above the moon's surface. Turns out, the team designing the probe has already planned to include a suite of instruments capable of tasting a plume, should the spacecraft fly through.

To find out more the Europa Clipper mission will make over 40 close flybys of the moon's surface, some only tens of kilometers up.

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