"The idea that Europa might possess plumes seems to be becoming more and more real, and that's very good news for future exploration", said Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist at the University of MI and the lead author of the new paper on the phenomenon.
The prospect of the water gushing from the Moon's interior has tantalized scientists, as that warm, vast interior ocean is thought to be one of the best places in the Solar System beyond Earth-if not the best-to look for extant life. Finally, those charged particles would interact with the surrounding magnetic field, generating fluctuations detectable by Galileo.
Besides, the recent research shows that Europa has never seized to be active, geologically speaking, at least. If the plumes' existence is confirmed - and they're linked to a subsurface ocean - studying their composition will help scientists investigate the chemical makeup of Europa's potentially habitable environment while minimizing the need to drill through layers of ice.During the nominal mission, the spacecraft will perform 45 flybys of Europa at closest-approach altitudes varying from 1700 miles to 16 miles (2700 kilometers to 25 kilometers) above the surface.
According to a study published today in the journal Nature Astronomy, the Galileo spacecraft detected what seems to be a massive water plume shooting out into space from Europa during one of its 11 flybys of Jupiter's moon conducted between 1995 and 2003.
Even though the latest findings of water plumes on Europa are not at all unassailable, the researchers are optimistic that their model will help the upcoming missions to Europa, namely, the ESA's JUICE mission and the NASA's Europa Clipper, both of which are created to determine, once and for all, if the icy moon of Jupiter has the right conditions to house life.
The new data, reported in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy, was examined by a team led by the University of MI.
The potential existence of water captured the interest of scientists as it could mean the moon is able to support life.
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Liquid water is, more or less, what NASA looks for when it decides what celestial body to explore next.
"During Galileo, we'd always known there was something weird during this flyby", Cynthia Phillips, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, was quoted as saying.
Recently, evidence has been building that Europa may have a plume as well. That's another requirement for life that might be checked off the list - in fact, some scientists theorize that life on Earth started in the deep sea vents that erupt in geysers.
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The evidence gathered to date suggests that the processes producing Europa's plumes - if they do indeed exist - may not be continuous like the geysers of Enceladus but instead intermittent.
Furthermore, the new analysis reveals that the Galileo probe may have actually passed through the giant water plume in 1997, when the spacecraft came as close as 124 miles (200 km) from Europa's surface. It's going to happen.
"I hate to tell you how old I'll be when the mission gets to Europa, but that's OK", she says. The agency is developing a $2 billion Jupiter-orbiting mission called Europa Clipper, which is scheduled to launch in the early to mid-2020s. "This discovery confirms the paramount importance of these missions, because it looks like Europa will be our best opportunity to discover life on another world", he adds.