Thursday, 24 May, 2018

Like Your Most Drunken Saturday Nights, Jupiter's Moon Spews Liquid

Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space Europa is venting water into space, old spacecraft data suggest
Sandra Phillips | 15 May, 2018, 15:28

A fresh look at data from a 1997 flyby of Jupiter's moon, Europa, suggests that NASA's Galileo spacecraft flew directly through a watery plume, raising hopes of probing the jets for signs of life around the second planet from Earth. If life has gained what passes for a foothold on Europa, it may be huddled around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean in a world of frigid, perpetual night.

Twice before has Nasa reported evidence, from its Hubble Space Telescope, for the existence of water plumes on Europa, though this interpretation has caused much debate. Galileo actually did a flyby of that location, and it was the closest one we ever had. But the only evidence of these plumes came from some blurry images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The researchers initially suspected Europa's surface to be releasing water by seeing the images received with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The data were put through new and advanced computer models to untangle a mystery - a brief, localized bend in the magnetic field - that had gone unexplained until now.

Last year, Melissa A. McGrath, a senior scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. who was not involved in the new study, took a look at some radio experiments conducted by Galileo which examined how signals bent as Europa passed between Earth and the spacecraft.

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

"We saw very peculiar changes in the magnetic signal, something I don't think has been explained in the past", team member Xianzhe Jia from the University of MI tells Nadia Drake at National Geographic. Jia, however, had worked with Galileo's data when he was a graduate student, so he had a good sense for the kind of data the probe typically collected.

The presence of the plume means the moon is geologically active, which is promising for the possibility of alien life in the sunless sea.

The Galileo data were unique because the magnetometer was trying to detect changes in Europa's magnetic field as the probe approached the moon, like a boat going through water and creating waves.

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At the time of the 1997 flyby, around 124 miles (200 kilometers) over Europa's surface, the Galileo group didn't presume the shuttle may touch a crest ejecting from the frosty moon.

In a paper in the journal Nature Astronomy Jia describes how his team build custom 3D modelling code to work out a plume's density and properties, adding in the magnetic data from the Enceladus plume probe.

Recently, evidence has been building that Europa may have a plume as well.

'If there is microbial life in these lakes, it has likely been under the ice for at least 120,000 years, so it likely evolved in isolation, ' said Anja Rutishauser, a PhD student at the University of Alberta who led the research.

If all goes according to plan, Clipper will make 40 to 45 flybys of Europa over the course of its mission, studying the moon's ice shell and subsurface ocean in an attempt to better understand Europa's potential to host life as we know it. Europa Clipper will also scout out locations for a future lander mission, which Congress has directed the space agency to develop as well.

At the time the blip in the data was unexplained but it is now believed it was a water plume. "We can analyse the particles and the gases to get a detailed composition of Europa's interior".

Europa has "a lot of the ingredients necessary for life" - water, energy and carbon material, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory planetary scientist Elizabeth Turtle told Reuters.

On its closest flyby, Galileo swept over Europa at more than 2,230 miles per hour.

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