Home > astronomy, space exploration > NASA says Hubble data indicates possible water plumes on Europa

NASA says Hubble data indicates possible water plumes on Europa

europa-with-water-vapor-at-7-oclock-position-jan-26-2014-composite-image-image-of-europa-superimposed-on-hubble-data-courtesy-nasa-esa-w-sparks-stsci-usgs-astrogeology-science-center
This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The plumes were photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. Hubble’s ultraviolet sensitivity allowed for the suspected plumes, which rise at least 160 kilometers above Europa’s icy surface, to be observed. The Hubble STIS data was obtained on Jan. 26, 2014. The image of Europa is superimposed on the Hubble STIS data and was assembled from data gathered during the Galileo and Voyager missions. Image courtesy NASA, European Space Agency, Space Telescope Science Institute/W. Sparks, U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center.

NASA announced Monday that scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have found evidence of water plumes on Europa, which means that spacecraft may be able to explore the moon’s ocean without the need to penetrate its icy surface.

A research team led by astronomer William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore used a technique that has often been instrumental in discovering exoplanets to identify the plumes.

As an exoplanet moves in front of its star, the light from that star changes as it passes through the exoplanet’s atmosphere. This happens because the light encounters a variety of molecules.

europa-transit-illustration-courtesy-a-field-stsci
This image from a STScI animation shows Europa as it transits Jupiter. Animation courtesy Space Telescope Science Institute, animation by A. Field.

On Europa, Sparks and his team noticed that the molecules in the moon’s atmosphere included water vapor. That led them to embark on a quest to determine whether water from Europa’s subsurface ocean is being expelled into space.

The scientists observed Europa pass in front of Jupiter, from which the Sun’s light would be reflected through the atmosphere of the Jovian moon, ten times in 15 months. On three of the occasions water vapor was detected.

“This is an exciting find because it potentially gives us access to the ocean below,” Sparks said at a NASA teleconference on Monday.

Scientists are interested in sampling Europa’s ocean because it may provide indications of whether the moon is, or ever has been, hospitable to life.

“On Earth, life is found wherever there is energy, water, and nutrients, so we have a special interest in any place that has those characteristics,” Dr. Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division in Washington, D.C., said. “Europa might be such a place.”

Europa has a large sub-surface ocean that is thought to contain more water than all of the oceans on Earth. However, the satellite also has a thick icy crust atop that ocean.

The water plumes may rise as high as 200 kilometers off Europa’s surface.

“Europa’s ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system,” Geoff Yoder, the acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said. “These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may provide another way to sample Europa’s subsurface.”

A team led by Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in Austin, Tex. identified water plumes rising from Europa’s south pole once during 2012.

The Roth group used the Hubble Space Telescope’s Imaging Spectrograph to identify hydrogen and oxygen ions by the ultraviolet radiation they emit after particles accelerated by Jupiter’s magnetic field split water molecules in the Europan atmosphere.

The STScI group also used the STIS instrument, but instead obtained imagery of Europa’s atmosphere in ultraviolet light.

“It’s a technique that complements the Roth team’s,” Dr. Jennifer J. Wiseman, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the agency’s senior scientist assigned to the Hubble Space Telescope, said.

Wiseman explained that STIS’ ultraviolet imaging capacity was particularly helpful to the STScI researchers.

“In ultraviolet light, the surface of Jupiter looks more uniform in color than in visible light, so that allowed the Sparks team to more clearly see the silhouette image of the possible plumes on Europa as the moon passed in front of the smooth Jupiter background,” she wrote in an email message.

The Roth team also used STIS during their quest for Europa’s plumes in 2012.

Sparks said that, notwithstanding a different methodology of investigation, the STScI results are similar to those found by Roth and his colleagues.

“When we calculate in a completely different way the amount of material that would be needed to create these absorption features, it’s pretty similar to what Roth and his team found,” he explained. “The estimates for the mass are similar, the estimates for the height of the plumes are similar. The latitude of two of the plume candidates we see corresponds to their earlier work.”

comparison-of-2014-transit-and-2012-europa-aurora-observations-transit-on-left-lorenz-roth-team-image-on-right-courtesy-nasa-esa-w-sparks-left-image-l-roth-right-image
These images compare the 2014 transit observed by the STSI team (left) and the 2012 spectroscopy obtained by the Roth team (right). Images courtesy NASA, European Space Agency, W. Sparks (left), L. Roth (right).

The STScI and Roth teams have not seen plumes erupting from Europa at the same times. Sparks and his colleagues observed what they believe to be water plumes in January, March, and April, 2014.

Wiseman said that detection of Europa’s plumes is difficult.

“Such plumes would be faint, probably intermittent, and the ultraviolet wavelengths of light being observed are at the high frequency edge of what Hubble can detect,” she wrote in an email message.

Sparks explained that he and his team do not claim that their work proves the plumes’ existence, though he also said Monday that he does not believe that any other explanation for the findings his team made is likely.

“In a formal sense, we have a statistically significant result,” Sparks said. “The problem is that there may be something we don’t understand about the instrument or the scene. It’s more of a subjective uncertainty than a quantitative uncertainty.”

“I’m not aware of any other plausible natural explanation for the appearance of these patches of absorption,” he continued.

Two of the water plumes that were apparently observed by Sparks and his team occurred near the south pole of Europa and one was seen near the moon’s equator.

A paper detailing the findings by the STScI team will be published in the Sept. 29 edition of Astrophysical Journal.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is the only body in the solar system known to eject water vapor to space.

Imagery obtained by the Galileo spacecraft during the late 1990s indicated that Europa has an ocean. Observation of the moon’s magnetic fields confirmed its existence.

Wiseman said during Monday’s teleconference that NASA plans to use the James Webb Space Telescope, due to be launched in 2018, to further investigate the possible water plumes of Europa.

james-webb-space-telescope-to-launch-in-2018-courtesy-nasa
The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched in 2018. Artist’s conception courtesy NASA.

In addition, the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Mission (JUICE) and NASA’s planned Europa orbiter will have future opportunities to explore the Jovian satellite.

NOTE 1: This post was updated at 5:38 pm MDT on Sept. 27, 2016 to add a discussion of Dr. Jennifer Wiseman’s interview responses.

NOTE 2: This post was updated at 9:32 pm MDT on Sept. 27, 2016 to correct an inaccurate statement contained in the headline, correct several minor errors in the quotation of Dr. Jennifer Wiseman’s email communication, and correct the acronym applicable to the Space Telescope Science Institute.

NOTE 3: This post was updated at 9:37 pm MDT on Sept. 27, 2016 to clarify the difference between the Roth team’s use of the Hubble Space Telescope’s Imaging Spectrograph in 2012 and the STScI team’s use of that instrument in 2014.

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