Water vapor plumes could be erupting off the surface of Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon, according to scientists. The observations were made using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, and confirmation of this will be made soon.
The water plumes, which apparently rise around 125 miles or 200 kilometers, indicate that taking a sample of Europa’s alleged ocean would not have to take too much drilling through miles of ice. It has been widely believed that the icy moon hides a thick layer of ocean beneath its surface, which has the same salinity as the Dead Sea.
“Europa’s ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system,” points out Geoff Yoder, the acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in a statement. “These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may provide another way to sample Europa’s subsurface.”
While observing Europa when it passed in front of Jupiter, scientists believed they saw plumes erupting on three out of ten observation periods. However, two teams observing the moon were not able to spot these plumes simultaneously. According to them, this demonstrates that water plumes on that moon are highly variable and could erupt sporadically for a moment and die down the next.
However, once they confirm these water plumes, Europa would be the second after Saturn’s moon Enceladus to have water plumes. Enceladus was detected to have jets of water vapor coming out if its surface in 2005, thanks to NASA’s Cassini orbiter.
To confirm Europa’s water plumes, the team plans to use the infrared vision of James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA will launch in 2018. The space agency also announced plans to launch a payload to examine these water plumes more closely.
The findings will be published on Sept. 29 in The Astrophysical Journal.