Scientists say they’ve uncovered new evidence of water plumes on the Jovian moon Europa, suggesting ingredients exist to support life.
The new data was processed from a very old source; back in 1997, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft collected information that perplexed scientists for years. This data was put through an “advanced computer model,” which helped scientists better understand a “bend in [Europa’s] magnetic field.”
The new research was led by Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Jia looked at data more than 20 years old, which couldn’t be fully understood because scientists lacked the right sophisticated modeling.
Galileo’s flyby in 1997 happened just 124 miles above Europa’s surface. At the time, scientists didn’t think the spacecraft flew through a plume. Now, according to Jia, high-resolution magnetometer data suggests a serendipitous encounter occurred all those years ago.
Galileo carried a powerful Plasma Wave Spectrometer to measure plasma waves caused by charged particles in gases around Europa’s atmosphere. Jia’s team pulled that data as well, and it also appeared to back the theory of a plume.
But numbers alone couldn’t paint the whole picture. Jia layered the magnetometry and plasma wave signatures into new 3D modeling developed by his team at the University of Michigan, which simulated the interactions of plasma with solar system bodies. The final ingredient was the data from Hubble that suggested dimensions of potential plumes.
The findings bode well for an upcoming mission, called Europa Clipper, that’s set to begin in 2022. If plumes on Europa do exist, Europa Clipper will know it. Better yet, the spacecraft will be able to directly sample exactly what’s being spewed from under the moon’s surface.