Water geyser on Jupiter moon sprayed NASA spacecraft in 1997 flyby

May 15, 2018, 22:22
Water geyser on Jupiter moon sprayed NASA spacecraft in 1997 flyby

The discovery also means the next spacecraft to visit the frozen outpost may be able to get an easy peek at what's beneath the moon's surface simply by flying through the plume.

Researchers are already working on missions to do just that.

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.

An image created from Hubble Space Telescope data shows hints of water plumes rising from Europa. In late 2012, Hubble spotted signs of such a feature near the moon's south pole. But he remarked that the specific reason why this plume-producing area of Europa seems to be warmer than other areas of the moon isn't well known. 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.

In 1997, the Galileo spacecraft buzzed Europa, coming within 250 miles of its icy surface.

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That mission had a severe shortcoming: The spacecraft's more powerful antenna failed to deploy after launch, limiting the amount of data the spacecraft could send back to Earth. For starters, Jia said, the Galileo mission team wasn't specifically looking for plumes.

Margaret Kivelson was principle investigator of the magnetometer on Galileo. The astronomers later found that during the said close flyby, Galileo's magnetometer and plasma wave spectrometer were able to measure significant changes.

The 20-year-old data was captured on Galileo's closest encounter with the moon but scientists were unable to explain the unexpected signals at the time. The data from the Galileo was then considered and became the focus of the study.

Artist's illustration of Europa Clipper above Europa, with Jupiter in the background. This indicates that a region of the moon potentially 1000 kilometers long could host such activity, though it is impossible to say whether this is a single plume or many, like the complex system of fractures and vents seen on Enceladus.

But the new results offer some optimism in this regard, Jia said. Now, a new study in Nature Astronomy not only proves they were right, but also confirms that it does something more awesome than they could have imagined: it shoots up out of the crust in big, handsome plumes.

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"It's wonderful how hard it is to anticipate something that just hasn't happened before", Kivelson said.

The source of the plume is still unclear. But as powerful as Hubble is, seeing something as small as a plume on a moon more than 380-million miles away is hard.

But the water could originate elsewhere, Jia cautioned. Follow-up observations revealed nothing. The particles that are spread by the plumes will be found in the atmosphere of Europa. Perhaps someone else will find further clues by mining years-old data.

The lawmaker was in the middle of expounding on an annual preoccupation: Putting more money into a robotic space-exploration project expected to cost $8 billion or more by the time it launches sometime after 2022. They also presented a presentation to fellow scientists, that enlightens other Hubble observations of Europa. Instruments on the Europa Clipper will have to be sensitive enough to capture the particles from the water plume. The spacecraft will seek molecules associated with biological activity.

Planetary scientist Elizabeth Turtle, of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said: "We know that Europa has a lot of the ingredients necessary for life, certainly for life as we know it".

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