Plumes of ocean spray are emanating from Jupiter's moon Europa

Jupiter's moon Europa harbors a saltwater ocean beneath an icy crust

Jupiter's moon Europa harbors a saltwater ocean beneath an icy crust

Between 1995 and 2003, the nuclear-powered orbiter trained a suite of sophisticated instruments on Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere and its many moons, focusing on the four large Galilean satellites - volcanic Io and the icy worlds Europa, Callisto and Ganymede.

That very same water is in contact with Europa's rocky core, which makes the moon (as well as Saturn's moon Enceladus) the most likely to have alien life of some form, due to the interactions between the ocean and the hot mantle.

The surface temperature in Europa is around minus 274 levels Fahrenheit (minus 170 degrees Celsius), however in the event the water under the surface ice is liquid, then that will make it far warmer than that.

The photo on the left traces the location of erupting plumes observed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2014 and 2016 (inside the green oval).

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Flying at 6km (3.7 miles) a second Galileo made its closest ever flyby, shooting across the surface at an altitude of 200km (125 miles) when it detected something unusual. These changes were all consistent with computer models that showed how the plumes Hubble saw should have been affecting the environment around the planet.

"We know that Europa has a lot of the ingredients necessary for life as we know it".

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. The question of whether there is life on Europa, despite harboring favorable conditions, remains unanswered, but not for too long we suppose.

"The discovery is important because researchers will now try to program the next probe, Europa Clipper, to fly over the same area", said Elizabeth Turtle from the Johns Hopkins University. Scientists think that this spike in energy particles may have been the probe flying through a water plume. They found their simulation matched closely with the data from Galileo, giving them confidence to confirm that these magnetic signatures were caused by water escaping Europa's ice shell.

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The revelation has again emphasised the scientific consensus that Europa, which has a salty ocean twice the size of Earth's, could be home to extraterrestrial life. "We needed to see whether there was anything in the data that could tell us whether or not there was a plume".

Costing $8bn, Europa Clipper will launch as early as June 2022 and will conduct a series of low-altitude flybys, collecting samples of frozen water and dust. Both of these observations provide strong evidence of a plume, Jia said.

"This wasn't planned out", study author Xianzhe Jia from the University of MI explains to Gizmodo. If enough evidence of water plumes is found, NASA (and other space agencies, we must assume) will investigate further, maybe someday bringing back samples.

NASA originally wanted to use the Clipper mission to land a probe on Europa for direct sampling, and one idea was for a robot melt its way down through the ice and into the waters below, but budget cuts put paid to that. During that time, the spacecraft made 11 flybys of Europa, including one in which it came to within a few hundred kilometers of the moon's surface.

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In May 2017, the SETI Institute's Melissa McGrath gave a presentation at one of the Europa Clipper science team meetings. "That's the big picture".

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