Possible water plumes erupting on surface of Europa

27 Sep 2016

Still from ‘Hubble Directly Images Possible Plumes on Europa’. Image: NASA Goddard/YouTube

Once again proving its value, NASA astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope believe they have spotted water plumes erupting on the surface of Europa that could make our hunt for life an awful lot easier.

As recently as last May, Jupiter’s moon Europa was being held up as our solar system’s best chance of finding life elsewhere in the universe. Analysis was predicting that its icy surface holds twice as much water as our own oceans.

Now, the latest analysis of its surface by the young Hubble Space Telescope may have found evidence that this water is being directly ejected as vapour from the planet’s icy crust.

Future Human

Makes search for life a lot easier

Based on images taken by NASA using the legendary Hubble Space Telescope, these potential plumes are enormous and rise to heights of around 200km, before raining back down on Europa’s surface.

If these are indeed vast water plumes, astrobiologists will be rubbing their hands with glee as it possibly means we could analyse the plumes for signs of microbial life, rather than needing to drill down into the ice.

The discovery was made by a team from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in the US, led by William Sparks. It had originally set out to determine whether Europa had a thin, extended atmosphere, or exosphere.

However, using the same atmosphere detection method for planets around orbiting stars, the team realised it could also be used to find water.

Europa water plume.

The image of the potential water plume (in the red circle) erupting on Europa. Image: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Future James Webb Space Telescope observations

Sparks’ team compared previous work undertaken by a research team in 2012 on water plumes on Europa. They found that many of the older calculations matched up with their own, thereby offering the best evidence for the existence of plumes.

“Europa’s ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbour life in the solar system,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may provide another way to sample Europa’s subsurface.”

One potential follow-up investigation into Europa’s plumes might occur sometime in 2018 or beyond, following the launch of the NASA James Webb Space Telescope.

By using its highly advanced infrared vision, this new and improved telescope could offer even greater insight into the planet’s behaviour.

Mercury gets tectonic

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the solar system, NASA has revealed that Earth is not alone anymore – at least when it comes to planets with tectonic activity.

Using images obtained by NASA’s Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER), small faults were discovered on Mercury’s surface, which suggest that the planet is geologically young.

“The young age of the small scarps means that Mercury joins Earth as a tectonically active planet, with new faults likely forming today as Mercury’s interior continues to cool and the planet contracts,” said Tom Watters, who led the research now published in Nature Geoscience.

Mercury tectonic

Small graben, or narrow linear troughs, have been found associated with small fault scarps (lower white arrows) on Mercury, and on Earth’s moon. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Smithsonian Institution

Updated 07.33am, 28/09/2016: This article was amended to clarify small faults were discovered on Mercury, not Earth.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic