Possible water plumes seen venting from Jupiter moon

7:46 AM, Dec 13, 2013   |    comments
This graphic shows the location of water vapor detected over Europa's south pole in observations taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in December 2012. (Photo: NASA/ESA/L. Roth/SWRI/University of Cologne)
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(USATODAY.com) - The Hubble Space Telescope has detected the first strong evidence of water plumes erupting from the icy surface of one of Jupiter's moons, researchers announced Thursday.

The finding came last December above the frozen south polar region of Europa, which is slightly smaller than Earth's moon. Hubble didn't photograph the geysers but detected evidence of hydrogen and oxygen, the components of water.

The research was reported at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

If corroborated, Europa would be the second moon in the solar system to have water vapor plumes. In 2005, the Cassini probe orbiting Saturn detected water vapor and dust in geyers bursting from its moon Enceladus. But so far, only water vapor gases have been measured at Europa.

Scientists had already determined that an ocean lies beneath Europa's frozen crust.

"If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa's crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa's potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice," said lead author Lorenz Roth of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. "And that is tremendously exciting."

Long cracks on Europa's surface might be venting the water vapor, Roth added.

Principal investigator and co-author Joachim Saur of the University of Cologne, Germany, said their team "pushed Hubble to its limits to see this very faint emission.'"

"These could be stealth plumes, because they might be tenuous and difficult to observe in the visible light," he said.

It's the second major Europa finding in two days. A new analysis of data from the Galileo mission reveals clay-type minerals on Europa's surface that "appear to have been delivered by a spectacular collision with an asteroid or comet," researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported Wednesday.

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