The Search for Life Beyond Earth Takes a Turn at Jupiter

Astronomers view water geysers on Europa

This artists conception of vapour plumes possibly containing water and organic material
This artist’s conception of vapour plumes possibly containing water and organic material

Astronomy news (2013-12-22) – Galileo might have dreamed of unseen life forms existing in a watery soup under the icy surface of Europa when he first discovered Jupiter had moons on January 07, 1610. NASA astronomers working with the Hubble Space Telescope probably had similar thoughts when they recently saw images of what appears to be water geysers erupting from the south pole of Europa. The image above shows an artist’s conception of what astronomers and scientists believe is plumes of water vapour reaching over 100 miles into space from the south pole of Europa.

Are there life forms or maybe just organic material of some type existing on this watery moon? NASA astronomers, space scientists and interested people around the world are hoping this news will spur NASA officials and congress to provide them with the resources they need to fund the Europa Clipper (a NASA mission designed to travel to Europa to see if the conditions required for life exist).

“If there’s a geyser 200 kilometers tall, and you could fly a spacecraft through it and sample the water coming out from Europa, that would be phenomenal. What if there are organics in it? That’s getting to the question of ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ ” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s top official for space science. “A subsurface ocean at Europa potentially provides all conditions for microbial life — at least life we know,” says study lead author Lorenz Roth, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Astronomers believe Europa's "Great Lake" is thought to be one of many in the shallow regions of the moon's icy exterior
Astronomers believe Europa’s “Great Lake” is just one of many in the shallow regions of the moon’s icy exterior

Astronomers are currently taking a look at earlier data concerning Europa provided by the Voyager probes during the 1980s and Galileo spacecraft during the 1990s to see if they missed something. Astronomers and planetary scientists suspected back in the 1980s, when they first obtained the data from the Voyager probes, that Europa could have an ocean of water beneath its icy crust deeper and more massive than all of the oceans of Earth. The Galileo spacecraft also detected the magnetic signature of a subsurface ocean beneath the surface ice of Europa and brown regions on the ice planetary scientists think could be due to ice crystals containing possible organic material, formed from water vapor plumes like the ones recently viewed, being deposited on the surface of the moon.

Astronomers search for water near the south pole of Europa by looking for the presence of both hydrogen and oxygen
Astronomers search for water near the south pole of Europa by looking for the presence of both hydrogen and oxygen

Astronomers are also comparing this data to more recent information concerning Europa, they obtained last year through the repaired Hubble Space Telescope, to see if they can find the telltale signature of hydrogen and oxygen they’re looking for in the data. Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen and this signature will help astronomers and planetary scientists determine if plumes of water vapour are in fact coming from Europa’s southern hemisphere.

“As it hit the vacuum of space, the water would flash freeze and some of it would turn into water vapour. Those water molecules would be split into atomic hydrogen and oxygen in the harsh radiation environment of the Jupiter system. But it wouldn’t just be water in the plume: Whatever else was in that ocean would be squirted into space, too, said James Green, head of NASA’s planetary science division. For a planetary scientist, it’s huge,” Green said of the news.

The image above shows spikes in hydrogen and oxygen levels in two southern hemisphere regions on Europa’s surface that last for brief periods of about seven hours and coincide with the moon reaching its farthest point from Jupiter in its orbit. Astronomers and planetary scientists think current computer models suggest the images obtained through the Hubble Space Telescope could show plumes of water vapour over a hundred miles high streaming into space from the surface of Europa. It remains puzzling to astronomers and scientists why the water vapour plumes seem to coincide with Europa reaching its apocenter, since this is the moment when tidal forces on the moon are at a low point (Astronomers estimate these tidal forces can be over 1,000 times stronger than the tidal forces our own moon experiences due to Earth). Current ideas include the thought that maybe the surface cracks on Europa’s southern pole open once Jupiter’s gravity starts to lessen, allowing water vapour to squeeze out in jets reaching over a hundred miles into space.

The colored area here is called Thera Macula, a region below the icy exterior of Europa that appears to be in chaos
The coloured area here is called Thera Macula, a region below the icy exterior of Europa that appears to be in chaos

Astronomers and planetary scientists at NASA suggest Europa’s plumes are probably like geysers they found on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which also seem to appear when the moon reaches its apocenter. They’re excited about this discovery because Europa is only about half as far from Earth than Enceladus, which will allow the Hubble Space Telescope to have a closer look, this time. They hope to be able to use this fact to confirm the discovery of water on Europa and Enceladus and possibly get some quantitative data on the size, density, composition and timing of the plumes. Analysis of the composition of the plumes should also give them the data they need to model the interior of the moon, without having to land on the surface and drill holes.

Visible are plains of bright ice, cracks that run to the horizon, and dark patches that likely contain both ice and dirt
Visible on the surface of Europa are plains of bright ice, cracks that run to the horizon, and dark patches that likely contain both ice and dirt

The implications of the discovery of water on both Enceladus and Europa is stunning to contemplate for human beings, astronomers, and planetary scientists. We believe the human journey to the beginning of space and time should voyage to both of these moons in the future to determine if the ingredients for life exist on these distant bodies. We need to do this for science, mankind and future generations of humanity.

This image shows a crack in the icy exterior of Europa, through which vapour could escape into space
This image shows a crack in the icy exterior of Europa, through which vapour could escape into space

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. in Washington operates STScI for NASA.

To view the images of the evidence for plumes visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/hubble-europa-water-vapor

For more information about the Hubble Space Telescope, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

Watch this YouTube video on astronomers thoughts on the possibility of an ocean beneath the crust of Europa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrjY2BKm-TA.

Read about NASA’s Messenger spacecraft and its mission to Mercury

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Read about the supernova astronomers are studying looking for a black hole they think was created during the explosion

36 thoughts on “The Search for Life Beyond Earth Takes a Turn at Jupiter

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