Sunday, 18 November, 2018

Jupiter's moon Europa has enough ingredients to sustain life

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

Through the cracks on the moon "feathers" emit water vapour - and this means that in Europe there are indeed conditions that could support life.

Water plumes support the idea that underneath Europa's ice-crested surface, there's a massive expanse of subterranean ocean.

Scientists have previously identified Europa as a prime target in the search for extraterrestrial life, suggesting the moon's ocean could host communities of microbes. At the time, though, scientists were skeptical, as the plumes were at the very limit of Hubble's ability to see. There it will perform 45 flybys past Europa, getting as close as 16 miles above the moon's surface.

The researchers found that, during this flyby, Galileo detected a significant change in Europa's magnetic field, as well as a brief but big increase in the density of plasma, or ionized gas. A previous study based on ultraviolet images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope suggested the presence of plumes. "It's very interesting that one can look at old data like these with new analysis tools like models and simulations".

That's when the University of Michigan's Xianzhe Jia and colleagues chose to revisit those archival data and see what kinds of nuggets they could find.

At the time the blip in the data was unexplained but it is now believed it was a water plume.

Instead, scientists suspect that tidal heating caused by the gravitational pull of Jupiter could be pressurising the watery ocean beneath Europa's frozen surface and causing it to blow out through cracks in the surface.

When the plume's particles become electrically conductive, they alter the surrounding magnetic fields.

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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.

Europa has always been thought to cover a salty ocean about twice the size of our planet's.

In other words, the spacecraft had flown through a localized plume maybe 620 miles wide somewhere near the moon's equator. "If you have an exchange of those materials, that might provide the reactants needed for life".

Elizabeth Turtle, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said that with these new data, it may be possible to tweak the trajectory for Europa Clipper to include this new spot of interest where Hubble and Galileo have evidence of plumes.

"But it's a long stretch to go from being able to measure the specific composition to being able to say, "There's life", she cautioned at the news conference Monday. Xianzhe Jia, the lead author of the study, told Mashable, "This is potentially great news for future exploration of Europa, because spacecraft may have a chance to directly sample materials that are linked to the subsurface ocean". Potential passages through a plume would be a bonus, allowing both spacecraft to sniff out any signs of curious oceanic chemistry or even of life carried aloft in the tenuous vapor.

"And one of the really exciting things about detection of a plume is that that means there may be ways that the material from the ocean - which is likely the most habitable part of Europa because it's warmer and it's protected from the radiation environment by the ice shell - to come out above the ice shell". And NASA is working on a mission that could do just that. "We'll surely see something we totally don't expect at Europa". That's why NASA has already spent years planning the Europa Clipper to investigate the moon for liquid.

No definitive reason behind the chat has been revealed, other than to discuss the continued intrigue behind Europa harboring some form of alien life.

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