NASA has fresh hope of finding signs of alien life

ImageNASA’s Galileo spacecraft appears to have flown through a plume erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa more than 20 years

ImageNASA’s Galileo spacecraft appears to have flown through a plume erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa more than 20 years

Although slightly smaller than Earth's moon, Europa is estimated to hold twice as much water as our planet underneath its frozen surface.

But the probe never directly encountered any of that water - or so scientists thought at the time. The plumes of water vapor likely originate from this ocean.

The study, led by Xianzhe Jia, of the University of MI, seems to confirm an idea that had already arisen from observations of the Hubble Space Telescope taken in 2012.

Europa is our best shot of finding biological life in the solar system, researchers say.

The implications could be enormous.

Recent evidence obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope was what prompted scientists like Jia to take another look at data from Galileo's journey into Jupiter, which dates back to 1997 when it is suspected that the spacecraft flew through a plume of water that was erupting from Europa.

But now, as Sarah Kaplan reports for The Washington Post, a new study reviewing 20-year-old data from the Galileo spacecraft's flybys of Europa adds to the mounting evidence that the plumes are indeed real. Nutrients sprayed onto the ice by the nearby volcanic moon Io, the thinking goes, may sink down to the ocean floor and serve as food.

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Based on what the scientists learned from exploring the water vapor plumes in Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, and after conducting several studies in three dimensions, they concluded that this type of superficial movement also occurs in Europa. But until now, solid evidence has been hard to come by.

Checking for the presence of the water plumes on Europa, the Jupiter's icy moon, is, thus, of utmost significance and is getting closer to being a real thing because a United States science team managed to rebuild a 3D model of one of the plumes, basing themselves on the data collected by Galileo probe.

Europa Clipper's instruments will be capable of "sniffing" the atmosphere of Europa, with more than 40 planned flybys. They found that a sudden blast of water from the Jovian moon explained the Galileo probe's unusual measurements.

Margaret Kivelson was a project scientist during the Galileo mission and is an author of the new study.

But the closest flyby in 1997 created data that perplexed Kivelson and others on Galileo's science team.

Now that we have the geysers to sail through, some of Clipper's gear, like the instruments meant to detect the tiniest traces of water in the atmosphere, might not be as useful as NASA thought it would be.

This new discovery used data collected much closer to the source and is considered strong, corroborating support for plumes. This led the scientists to conclude that Hubble had indeed seen plumes on Europa, and Galileo must have flown near or through one.

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"With the Hubble data in hand", Dr. Kivelson said, "we had an idea of how big a plume might be reasonable".

Jia hopes this paper will inspire fellow researchers to keep looking at Europa's plumes.

"When we first saw those images, I think a lot of us in the community were very excited", says planetary scientists Xianzhe Jia from the University of MI. "We can even collect dust particles".

The space agency is priming two probes, including one that will land on its surface, to explore the distant moon in detail within the next decade, the agency says.

"These findings will help plan future missions to Europa, such as NASA's Europa Clipper and ESA's Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer spacecraft, both of which are expected to arrive at Jupiter between the late 2020s and early 2030s", said a Nature summary. One flyby in December 1997 came within 400 kilometers of the surface-much closer than Hubble, which in low Earth orbit is at least 600 million kilometers away. That would give it unprecedented access to visuals of plumes and the ability to taste of their water for salts, organic compounds, and other chemicals. Researchers think the geyser material is coming from Enceladus' ocean, so flying through the moon's plume provides a possible way to search for signs of life on Enceladus without even touching down.

He added: "If there's life at Europa, it'd nearly certainly be an independently evolved form of life". Would it use the same chemistry to store and use energy?

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