Geysers on Europa Found in 20 Year Old Space Probe Data


The data provide independent evidence that the moon's subsurface liquid water reservoir may be venting plumes of water vapor above its icy shell.

It comes from measurements made from much closer up during a flyby of Nasa's now-expired Galileo spacecraft.

Checking for the presence of the water plumes on Europa, the Jupiter's icy moon, is, thus, of utmost significance and is getting closer to being a real thing because a USA science team managed to rebuild a 3D model of one of the plumes, basing themselves on the data collected by Galileo probe.

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.

The research was led by Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI in Ann Arbor and lead author of the journal article. And while NASA already has plans to explore Europa, this is the most heartening sign of life that planetary scientists have been waiting for.

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"When we look at those data carefully, what we found is there's some unusual magnetic signals in those data that have never been explained before", Jai says.

Jia's team was inspired to dive back into the Galileo data by Melissa McGrath of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. But as powerful as Hubble is, seeing something as small as a plume on a moon more than 380-million miles away is hard.

The ongoing debate called for on-site observations, Jia said. "We needed to see whether there was anything in the data that could tell us whether or not there was a plume".

But it wasn't until past year, at a conference for boffins planning the Europa Clipper spacecraft that's due to head out to the mysterious moon in 2022, that Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI put the pieces together and made a decision to revisit the Galileo data.

When they examined the information gathered during that flyby 21 years ago, sure enough, high-resolution magnetometer data showed something unusual. For example, NASA's Cassini spacecraft sampled plumes from Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus that contained hydrogen from hydrothermal vents, an environment that may have given rise to life on Earth. And there it was on Europa -- a brief, localized bend in the magnetic field that had never been explained.

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The study looked at the magnetic and plasma wave signatures captured by NASA's spacecraft Galileo, which reached Jupiter's atmosphere in 2003. Jia's team pulled that data as well, and it also appeared to back the theory of a plume. Jia layered the magnetometry and plasma wave signatures into new 3D modeling developed by his team at the University of MI, which simulated the interactions of plasma with solar system bodies. Before heading to a meeting of scientists working on the Clipper mission, a thought occurred to Dr. McGrath: "Gee, I really should check to see if any of them line up with any of the claimed plume detections", from Hubble.

The geysers make the mission's job much easier. "These are no longer uncertain blips on a faraway image".

These findings will inform and draw more interest in NASA's Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency's Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) missions, planned to launch in the mid-2020s and in 2022, respectively.

The Europa Clipper mission will study Europa for two years, spending time orbiting Jupiter and making at least 40 close flybys of Europa. She's looking forward to NASA's next mission to the giant planet. By and large, those model predictions matched their observations, ruling out Jupiter as the source and strengthening the case for watery plumes erupting from Europa's depths.

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