Signs of Europa space geyser seen in decades-old NASA data

Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space

If enough evidence of water plumes is found, NASA (and other space agencies, we must assume) will investigate further, maybe someday bringing back samples.

Scientists presented further evidence Monday for water plumes on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, raising hopes of probing the jets for signs of life around the second planet from Earth.

The newly analyzed Galileo data provides "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa", said study lead author Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of MI.

The image at the head of this article is an artist's interpretation of what a plume of water vapor might look like blasting from Europa's surface. And NASA is working on a mission that could do just that.

Previous images showed what scientists think is Europa spewing water in 2012 and 2016.

It is thought to have an iron core, a rocky mantle and a surface ocean of salty water, like Earth.

"The idea that Europa might possess plumes seems to be becoming more and more real, and that's very good news for future exploration", said Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI and the lead author of the new paper on the phenomenon.

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At the time the blip in the data was unexplained but it is now believed it was a water plume. The experiments showed Europa possesses an atmosphere.

To study the plumes, the probe will not need to pass directly through them.

During its time at Jupiter, Galileo performed 11 flybys of Europa. A team led by space physicist Xianzhe Jia from the University of MI found signs of plumes in data collected by Galileo's closest pass by Europa in 1997.

The ongoing debate called for on-site observations, Jia said.

In addition, "to make sense of the observations, we had to really go for sophisticated numerical modeling" techniques, he told Space.com. Although the data has been available for more than 20 years scientists were just able to see this now.

The new study, which was published online today (May 14) in the journal Nature Astronomy, is undoubtedly of great interest to NASA.

The Europa Clipper mission will study Europa for two years, spending time orbiting Jupiter and making at least 40 close flybys of Europa.

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"These findings will help plan future missions to Europa, such as NASA's Europa Clipper and ESA's Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer spacecraft, both of which are expected to arrive at Jupiter between the late 2020s and early 2030s", said a Nature summary.

NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft, set for launch as soon as 2022, will carry several instruments capable of capturing and analyzing plume ingredients.

The evidence gathered to date suggests that the processes producing Europa's plumes - if they do indeed exist - may not be continuous like the geysers of Enceladus but instead intermittent.

But the new results offer some optimism in this regard, Jia said.

"There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa", said Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"The general region of the thermal anomaly might have long-lived plume activity", Jia said.

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