H2Whoa! Hubble Telescope Finds Geysers of Water on Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Scientists suspected that the moon of Europa had an ocean of water beneath frozen ice. A new study suggests that water may be closer to the surface than they thought

  • Share
  • Read Later

From the moment the Voyager probes beamed back the first high-resolution photos of Jupiter’s moon Europa back in 1979, planetary scientists began thinking seriously that this frigid world, a half-billion miles or so from the warming rays of the sun, could be hospitable to life. They already knew Europa was covered in a miles-thick crust of ice, making it one of the most highly reflective objects in the solar system. But close-up images revealed that the ice is riddled with cracks, suggesting that underneath lies an ocean of liquid water — the most basic requirement for life as we know it.

So far, the evidence for that moon-girdling ocean has been compelling, but indirect, making it difficult for scientists to be certain about how friendly to life the water’s chemistry really is. But according to a new paper in Science, that may just have changed in a dramatic way: using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have spotted what appear to be plumes of water spurting more than 100 miles above Europa’s surface like huge, chilly geysers.

(PHOTOS: Deep-Space Photos: Hubble’s Greatest Hits)

“It could be a false positive,” says a cautious Kevin Hand, a planetary scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who wasn’t part of the team, “but it looks robust.” “If this paper is correct,” he says, “then Europa is geologically active today. The next question is, What’s in Europa’s ocean and could it — or does it — harbor life?”

(MORE: NASA Detects Water on Five Planets)

The answer to that crucial question won’t be coming anytime soon, but the observation of water in Europa’s oceans is a big step in the right direction. In fact, says planetary scientist Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., the paper’s lead author, “the idea has been around for some time that plumes of water could exist on Europa.” That’s because the moon is subjected to constantly changing tidal forces from Jupiter and from the planet’s other large moons.

Internal friction from this tidal squeezing keeps Europa’s core warm, which keeps the ocean from freezing solid and could in theory send some of that water out into space. That’s exactly what seems to be happening on Saturn’s moons Enceladus, and perhaps Titan as well. It’s also happening on Jupiter’s moon Io — except that in Io’s case, the eruptions, first spotted by Voyager in 1979, are more rocky than watery.

(PHOTOS: The Year’s Most Beautiful Photos From Space)

Neither the Voyagers nor the Galileo spacecraft saw any such activity on Europa, but astronomers realized that such eruptions could be highly intermittent, and therefore easy to miss. In 1999, they took a look with Hubble and saw nothing, but about a year ago, Roth and his colleagues decided to try again. This time, they got lucky. Using an instrument called the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, they detected the faint glow of ultraviolet light above Europa’s southern hemisphere.

Further analysis suggested the glow came from oxygen and hydrogen atoms being bombarded by particles being whipped around by Jupiter’s intense magnetic fields. The glow persisted for at least seven hours, at the point where Europa was furthest from Jupiter in its 3.5-day orbit and the tidal squeezing greatest. When Europa was closer to Jupiter, the glow vanished.

(MORE: More Clues to Life in the Oceans — on an Alien Moon, That Is)

Surprisingly, says Hand, “this part of Europa is not where I would have predicted we’d see active plumes. If anything, models indicate that the ice should be thicker toward the poles, and thicker ice is harder to crack.” The conventional wisdom says the ice layer is at least a few miles thick on average, and maybe tens of miles thick. But this observation could be telling us, says Hand, that it’s significantly thinner. And if that’s the case, drilling down to look around and take samples in some future Europa mission would be easier than anyone currently believes.

It’s also possible that the plumes of water could be coming not from Europa’s ocean, but from a lake or lakes nestled within the ice shell itself. “There’s no way to tell at this point,” says Hand. If it’s the latter, then the plumes may not be all that useful in revealing what sorts of salts or other minerals are dissolved in Europa’s ocean, and thus whether conditions are pleasant or poisonous.

(PHOTOS: Voyager 1: Photos From the Journey)

If it’s the former, though, they could be crucial. “If these really are plumes of water jetting up from below,” says Hand, who has made his own telescopic observations of Europa’s surface chemistry in partnership with Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, “then sampling of Europa’s ocean may be possible with a spacecraft flying through the plumes.”

As it happens, Hand is already working out the details of a proposed mission called the Europa Clipper, which would do no fewer than 32 flybys, and which could presumably target the plumes. “We need to get a spacecraft back out to this fascinating world to better explore and understand its potentially habitable ocean,” he says. And while the mission hasn’t been approved yet by NASA, this new discovery can hardly hurt its chances.

MORE: The Rock That Clobbered Russia: Meteor Postmortem

11 comments
theblessedtroll
theblessedtroll

Then, is there fossils or life elsewhere? But, isn’t the emergence and maintenance of life a process of radical contingency? That is, is a unique and unrepeatable past totally necessary? Or does life emerge through space like mushrooms when some conditions are present? So, how many conditions are necessary: three, four, trillions, infinite? Only one, water or any sort of God? Is God the word that means infinite conditions, absolute necessity? Anyway, how did the life that emerge in a given conditions resist when switching to a different  moment? How does life resist time itself, the effects of entropy? But, is it possible for human beings to recognise a simpler life than their own brain only? On the other hand, beyond likeness, is it possible to recognise a complex life than their brain, is this the extra-terrestrial life that some people are searching unsuccessfully? However, is there an origin of life or would it be as finding a cut in the material history of the universe, an infinite void that human language patches now? Is it the same cut between life and death? Along these lines, a serious-funny  b-book, a preview in goo.gl/rfVqw6 Just another suggestion for mind leisure, far away from dogmas or axioms.

eagle11772
eagle11772

I saw "Europa Report" and it's a good movie ad I recommend it.  I've been an amateur astronomer for over 40 years, and of course I have always hoped that we would find life elsewhere, even microbial.  But many years ago, I changed my mind.  I hope we never find life on another body. I hope we don't even go look for it on Europa or elsewhere with space probes.  Why ?  Because if you look at what humans have done to life on the Earth, every time we have found a new species, we have killed it.  And if we send a probe to Europa or elsewhere to search for life, I'm sure we will contaminate the planet or satellite we go to, intentionally or not, and we will kill whatever life forms we find there.  It's our Nature.  I hope we never find life elsewhere.  We've damaged, destroyed, and screwed up enough life here on Earth.

rman33
rman33

"ALL THESE WORLDS
ARE YOURS EXCEPT
EUROPA
ATTEMPT NO
LANDING THERE"

We were warned.

MariettaAlexander
MariettaAlexander

Scripture in Genesis tells us that God separated the waters ABOVE the heavens from those on the earth. We can expect to find water through out the solar system and the Universe.  The Bible is a book that tells the truth and it can be verified, no need to doubt the Word of God, the Bible!

SajjadHamid
SajjadHamid

What the heck, what they gonna do with the water, pipe it back to earth or we gonna start moving up there?

RichardPatrickCarnes
RichardPatrickCarnes

freaking awesome,  Me personally i think we should spend more time/money on europa all this effort going into mars is not really paying off besides some great pictures of an irradiated rock   

Rainingjellyfish
Rainingjellyfish

@eagle11772 I agree. Some things are better off not knowing. When I was younger, I always thought knowledge could never hurt, only propel. Now that I'm fourteen, I've realized that too much knowledge can ruin everything. Humans are like viruses, the only way we can survive is by using and destroying everything around us. Once this Earth is completely destroyed, we will find a new body to infect, looking for a new start, which will inevitably lead to the same end.

eagle11772
eagle11772

@SajjadHamid It's one of the "shovel-ready" jobs that The Obamaniac is always talking about.  Have the poor and unemployed build a big pipe there !

sprouticus69
sprouticus69

@SajjadHamid bible thumping aside...analyzing the water would be an excellent way to determine if ti is suitable for life. If we were lucky you might find indirect evidence of that life. If you were REALLY lucky you could even find microbial life in the plume.

MariettaAlexander
MariettaAlexander

@SajjadHamid  God is bringing to pass confirmation that every word in His Book, the Bible is true whether we ever get a chance to taste this water or not!

eagle11772
eagle11772

@Rainingjellyfish  I agree with your virus analogy and have thought the same thing for many years.  Fortunately no species lasts forever, and hopefully our species will die out before we find life elsewhere off this planet and screw it up.