NASA’s Hubble telescope spots potential water plumes on Europa for a second time

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There’s more evidence that plumes of water are erupting from underneath the crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. NASA announced the findings today at a press conference, at the same time that the agency also announced new clues that Saturn’s moon Enceladus may have the right conditions for life.

A possible plume was spotted in 2016 by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which is currently in orbit around Earth. At the time, the telescope imaged what looked like a 62-mile-high water plume in ultraviolet light. A similar watery eruption on Europa has been observed before. In 2014, Hubble saw a potential plume that reached 30 miles high, and it was spewing from the same spot as the one in 2016. That means these plumes may be consistently erupting from one region.

The two potential plumes on Europa spotted by Hubble.
Photo: NASA

NASA isn’t saying that these are actual plumes just yet, but if they do exist they’re probably coming from the vast saltwater ocean that is thought to lurk underneath Europa’s surface. These plumes also seem to be coming from a particularly warm region on the moon, where there are cracks in the icy crust. It’s possible that the water being vented from the sea floor underneath this spot is warming the crust. Or maybe the plume materials are falling back to the surface, changing the crust in such a way so that it stays warm.

Either way, this site on Europa could serve as a great place to visit, and NASA is currently making a spacecraft to do just that. The Europa Clipper mission, which is supposed to launch in the 2020s, involves sending a vehicle to the ocean moon that will periodically fly by the world and collect crucial data. Europa Clipper will also be equipped with an ultraviolet imager like Hubble, but the images it takes will be thousands of times closer. And more refined instruments will be able to figure out what the particles surrounding Europa are made of.

“If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them,” Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said in a statement.



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