Images captured using the Hubble Space Telescope seem to confirm that the water plumes first discovered on Europa back in 2012 are real, NASA officials announced on Monday – good news for the possibility of Europa harboring alien life.
These water vapor geysers are estimated to rise to heights of roughly 125 miles (200 kilometers) before raining their contents back down to the moon’s surface, the US space agency explained in a statement. They added that these plumes may provide an opportunity to collect samples from Europa’s extensive underground ocean without having to drill through surface ice.
As Geoff Yoder, the acting associate administrator at the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington, pointed out, “Europa’s ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system. These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may provide another way to sample Europa’s subsurface.”
“Today’s results increase our confidence that water and other materials from Europa’s ocean – Europa’s hidden ocean, hidden under miles of ice – might be on the surface of Europa and available for us to study, without landing and digging through those unknown miles of ice,” Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, told Space.com. The team’s findings will appear in the September 29 edition of The Astrophysical Journal.
Activity could be analyzed by James West telescope, Europa mission
Hubble first detected what appeared to be the water vapor plumes approximately four years ago in the south polar region of the moon. The discovery was met by initial excitement, according to Space.com, because it indicated that scientists would be able to collect samples from the oceans located beneath Europa’s surface without needing to drill through its thick icy shell.
However, repeated follow-up attempts to confirm this possible discovery proved unsuccessful until William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute and his colleagues announced on Monday that they were able to successfully spot what appeared to be plume activity three times in 2014(first in January, then again in March and finally once more in April) using Hubble.
On Monday, Sparks said that the detections “appear to be real. The statistical significance is pretty good, and I don’t know of any other natural alternative.” His team observed material from the water vapor geysers apparently blocking ultraviolet light emitted by Jupiter as Europa passed in front of the planet. However, he declined to call this a definitive confirmation of the plumes, telling reporters that he and his colleagues “remain cautious” about their findings.
One of the reasons for this caution, NASA explained, is that Sparks’ team and the group behind the initial discovery in 2012 have yet to detect the plumes at the same time using their individual techniques. The agency may turn to the infrared capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope to confirm the presence or absence of activity on Europa when it launches in 2018.
If confirmed, the moon would be just the second in the solar system known to have water vapor plumes, according to NASA. The discovery could also have a dramatic impact on the agency’s yet-unnamed mission to Europa, which is scheduled to launch sometime in the 2020s. Should the existence of these geysers be confirmed, the spacecraft used on that mission could be directed to fly through one of the plumes, Space.com noted.
Image credit: NASA