WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 (PNA/Xinhua) — Plumes of water more than 200 kilometers tall may be spouting intermittently from beneath the surface of Jupiter’s ice-covered moon, Europa, one of the best locations in the solar system to find existing life, U.S. researchers said Thursday.
If confirmed, this would show that the moon’s underground ocean has easy access to the surface, at least sometimes, and it may also have implications for future explorations of Europa’s potential habitability, the researchers reported in the U.S. journal Science.
“That is tremendously exciting,” lead author Lorenz Roth of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio said in a statement. ” If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa’s crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice.”
The researchers used images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in November and December of last year as well as older images of Europa, taken by Hubble in 1999, to identify surpluses of hydrogen and oxygen in two distinct regions of the moon’s southern hemisphere.
These surpluses can be observed for just a small window, approximately 7 hours at a time, according to the researchers.
The plumes are present when Europa is near the apocenter of its orbit, or farthest from Jupiter, and they vanish when the moon is close to the pericenter, or very near its planet, the researchers said.
The discovery suggested that tidal acceleration plays a primary role in the phenomenon of plume spouting by opening cracks in the surface, which are narrowed or closed when the moon is closest to the gas-giant planet.
Based on their observations, the researchers suggested that Europa’s plumes may be similar to those of one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, with high-pressure vapor emissions escaping from very narrow cracks.
But because Europa has a roughly 12 times stronger gravitational pull than Enceladus, the minus-40-degree-Celsius vapor for the most part does not escape into space as it does at Enceladus, but rather falls back onto the surface after reaching an altitude of 201 kilometers, according to the researchers.
“If confirmed, this new observation … opens a new chapter in our search for potentially habitable environments in our solar system,” added John Grunsfeld, an astronaut who participated in Hubble servicing missions and now serves as NASA’s associate administrator for science. (PNA/Xinhua)