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EarthSky // Science Wire, Space Release Date: Dec 14, 2013

Water vapor venting from Jupiter’s moon, Europa

If these plumes vent from Europa’s subsurface water ocean, future scientists won’t need to drill into Europa’s icy crust to investigate the potential for life in that alien sea.

Water-vapor-plumes-over-europa

This artist’s depiction shows the location of water vapor detected over the south pole of Europa – a moon of Jupiter. The Hubble Space Telescope acquired the first strong evidence of water plumes erupting off Europa’s surface. Image via NASA, ESA, and L. Roth

Jupiter’s moon Europa has long been thought to have an ocean located under its icy crust. This week, at the 2013 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, scientists discussed observations by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope of water vapor above the frigid south pole of Europa. It’s the first strong evidence of water plumes erupting off the surface of this moon.

Researchers say they aren’t sure yet whether the detected water vapor is generated by water plumes erupting on Europa’s surface, but they say they’re confident this is the most likely explanation.

If it’s true – and the only way to know is to gather more observations – then Europa is the second moon in our solar system known to have water vapor plumes. The first was discovered in 2005, by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. It detected jets of water vapor and dust spewing off the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Although ice and dust particles subsequently have been found in the Enceladus plumes, only water vapor gases have been measured at Europa so far.

Lead author Lorenz Roth of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas said:

By far the simplest explanation for this water vapor is that it erupted from plumes on the surface of Europa. If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa’s crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice.

And that is tremendously exciting.

Bottom line: Hubble Space Telescope has found what appear to be water vapor plumes erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Read more about the water vapor plumes from Europa at HubbleSite

More results from this week’s AGU meeting:

Antarctic ozone hole is not yet in recovery

The weird object near Saturn’s A ring

Proposed step to help society prepare for a solar storm disaster

Arctic caught a break in 2013, as long-term warming continues