Possible Water Plumes on Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have imaged what may be water vapor plumes erupting off the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. This finding bolsters other Hubble observations suggesting the icy moon erupts with high altitude water vapor plumes.

The observation increases the possibility that missions to Europa may be able to sample Europa’s ocean without having to drill through miles of ice.

“Europa’s ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor 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.”

The plumes are estimated to rise about 125 miles (200 kilometers) before, presumably, raining material back down onto Europa’s surface. Europa has a huge global ocean containing twice as much water as Earth’s oceans but it is protected by a layer of extremely cold and hard ice of unknown thickness.

“The atmosphere of an extrasolar planet blocks some of the starlight that is behind it,” William Sparks, lead at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, explained. “If there is a thin atmosphere around Europa, it has the potential to block some of the light of Jupiter, and we could see it as a silhouette. And so we were looking for absorption features around the limb of Europa as it transited the smooth face of Jupiter.”

In 10 separate occurrences spanning 15 months, the team observed Europa passing in front of Jupiter. They saw what could be plumes erupting on three of these occasions.

This work provides supporting evidence for water plumes on Europa. In 2012, a team led by Lorenz Roth of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio detected evidence of water vapor erupting from the frigid south polar region of Europa and reaching more than100 miles (160 kilometers) into space. Although both teams used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph instrument, each used a totally independent method to arrive at the same conclusion.

If confirmed, Europa would be the second moon in the solar system known to have water vapor plumes. In 2005, NASA’s Cassini orbiter detected jets of water vapor and dust spewing off the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Scientists may use the infrared vision of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018, to confirm venting or plume activity on Europa. NASA also is formulating a mission to Europa with a payload that could confirm the presence of plumes and study them from close range during multiple flybys.

“Hubble’s unique capabilities enabled it to capture these plumes, once again demonstrating Hubble’s ability to make observations it was never designed to make,” said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This observation opens up a world of possibilities, and we look forward to future missions – such as the James Webb Space Telescope – to follow-up on this exciting discovery.”

The work by Sparks and his colleagues is published in today’s issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Planetary scientist Kevin Hand of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena co-authored the new paper.