Science & Technology

Hubble readings firm up evidence for plumes of water at Jupiter’s moon Europa

It’s not aliens. And it’s not precisely stunning, despite NASA’s advance billing. However new evidence of water plumes emanating from Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, have added to the thrill over a proposed mission that would pattern the water for indicators of life.

The evidence comes within the type of splotchy ultraviolet photos captured by the Hubble House Telescope, working at the boundaries of its sensitivity. Scientists say the pictures seem to indicate intermittent emissions of water vapor close to Europa’s south pole.

“If plumes exist, that is an thrilling discovering,” William Sparks, an astronomer at the House Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, instructed reporters right this moment throughout a teleconference.

Sparks is the principal writer of a paper describing the observations that may seem in the Astrophysical Journal. The ultraviolet readings had been taken in 2014 by Hubble’s House Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, or STIS.


Three years in the past, a unique crew of researchers stated spectrographic readings from STIS pointed to towering water plumes at Europa, however they weren’t in a position to affirm these observations. A research based mostly on knowledge from the Cassini mission turned up no evidence of the plumes, elevating doubts.

Sparks and his colleagues tried a unique technique. That they had Hubble look at Europa whereas it was passing throughout the disk of Jupiter, which displays a fair glow of ultraviolet gentle from the solar. Then they painstakingly analyzed thousands and thousands of readings to search out spots alongside Europa’s edge the place the sunshine was apparently filtered by means of the plumes of water vapor.

The truth that two completely different strategies pointed to water plumes strengthens scientists’ confidence that the phenomenon is actual and never only a quirk within the knowledge. Nonetheless, Sparks emphasised that also extra knowledge can be wanted to nail down the speculation. NASA’s James Webb House Telescope, a successor to Hubble that’s due for launch in 2018, may ship the products.

Sparks additionally stated the evidence means that the water isn’t at all times there. Solely three of Hubble’s 10 readings confirmed evidence of plumes. “In the event that they’re actual, they must be intermittent,” he stated.

Sparks estimated that the plumes ought to comprise a number of million kilograms of water, and rise about 125 miles above Europa’s floor. That may put them in a league with the extra apparent water plumes which have been seen emanating from Enceladus, an ice-covered moon of Saturn.

Like Enceladus, Europa is believed to have a deep water ocean beneath its ice, doubtlessly heated by tidal stresses and strains in its rocky core. The presence of liquid water would make Europa and Enceladus prime candidates for missions to gauge their potential habitability.

The truth that the moons are coated with ice poses a problem: How do you get to the water? Now scientists are extra assured {that a} proposed Europa mission may analyze the plumes throughout repeated flybys, together with shut flybys that will let the probe “style” the water because it handed by means of.

mission that’s already on the books for launch in the 2020s may make such observations, stated Curt Niebur, Europa mission program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.


Niebur emphasised that the Europa spacecraft wouldn’t be constructed particularly to detect the presence of life. “We all know measure habitability. … With regards to discovering life, we don’t have as a lot expertise,” he stated.

And even when microbes (or freeze-dried fish) had been to spew up from beneath the floor, the Jupiter system’s radiation setting and the chilly vacuum of house would kill them off, Sparks stated. “We’d must look for the stays of one thing that was as soon as protected within the ice, or by the ice,” he stated.

Earlier than right this moment’s briefing, NASA stated the scientists can be sharing “surprising evidence” of activity which may be associated to Europa’s ocean – whereas making clear that they wouldn’t be reporting the invention of alien life.

NASA spokesman Steve Cole jokingly referred to the alien angle at the highest of the briefing. “Spoiler alert: Regardless of what some media have reported lately, this discovering has nothing to do with detecting life on Europa,” he instructed reporters.

The scientists distanced themselves much more from the hype. Sparks instructed GeekWire he was “impartial” on the query of whether or not the findings had been stunning. Britney Schmidt, a planetary scientist at Georgia Tech who has been learning Europa for years, struck a equally circumspect tone.

“I normally say to individuals, I’m not stunned,” Schmidt stated. “I’m excited, and skeptical.”
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