New observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope suggest water vapor plumes are venting from Jupiter’s moon, Europa. The discovery was made on Europa’s south pole, which has previously shown evidence of water; the newest finding further hint that the moon is home to a hidden ocean under a thick layer of ice.
“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,” said Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute.
The plumes have only been spotted once, but given that scientists already suspect Europa has an underground ocean, researchers are confident the plumes are evidence of a deeper secret.
“They’re bringing up material from in the ocean, perhaps there’s organic material that will be laying on the surface of the south pole,” said James Green, head of NASA’s planetary science programs.
Not enough data has been collected about the plumes, so scientists have yet to determine if they’re stemming from Europa’s alleged ocean. The suspected water vapor could also be a result of plates of ice rubbing together and generating heat from friction, Discovery noted. Hubble spotted the plumes as Europa was farthest away from Jupiter, when gravitational stresses are strongest.
Further observations are expected before scientists can confirm their findings; other data from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which collected info back in the 90s, will also be used to corroborate the new information. Scientists have been able to determine that the current plumes rise about 125 miles before falling back to the surface, where they freeze in about 20 minutes. The data just shows that water may be more prevalent in space than initially thought, with Earth’s moon, Mars, and Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, also potential havens.