NASA is building a spacecraft called Europa Clipper that could give us more insight into how that Jupiter moon is spewing so much water into space. If NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is ready, the mission will launch in 2024 — which is great considering some new findings.
New research suggests Europa might produce water from within the icy crust of the Jupiter moon — although that doesn’t explain everything the Hubble Space Telescope has observed from Earth orbit.
Here’s the rub, though: the crust isn’t as life-friendly as the ocean below the surface. More precisely, if the water comes from zones of water inside the ice shell, the water would likely be less habitable than if the source was from the vast ocean below. That’s because there is less energy available for microbes within the crust than within the ocean.
It would be super-useful to have a spacecraft to observe Europa up close, to resolve this debate about whether the water plumes are indicative of a life-friendly environment. “Understanding where these water plumes are coming from is very important for knowing whether future Europa explorers could have a chance to actually detect life from space without probing Europa’s ocean,” said lead author Gregor Steinbrügge, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, in a statement.
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Researchers gathered the data for a model using a long-dead mission, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which finished work almost 20 years ago. The great thing about spacecraft is long after their work concludes, the data is still available and can be used forever to gain new insights into old observations.
The researchers zeroed in on an 18-mile (29-kilometer) wide crater on Europa called Manannán. Craters happen when small bodies crash at high speed into a world’s surface. Using a model, the researchers suggest that Europa’s water partially froze into ice after the impact happened, creating “pockets” of salty or briny water in the crust.
“The model proposes that when a migrating brine pocket reached the center of Manannán Crater, it became stuck and began freezing, generating pressure that eventually resulted in a plume, estimated to have been over a mile high,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in the same statement. “The eruption of this plume left a distinguishing mark: a spider-shaped feature on Europa’s surface that was observed by Galileo imaging and incorporated into the researchers’ model.”
That said, the plumes visible from Hubble are likely much larger than the explanation used for briny water at Manannán. So maybe there’s more than one way that plumes erupt from Europa. Regardless, we definitely would appreciate a closer look. Here’s hoping that the Clipper mission maintains its funding and schedule so we can learn more in the coming decade or so.