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.
More results from this week’s AGU meeting: