Next stop the ocean worlds of Enceladus and Europa
Space news (planetary science: water worlds of the solar system; Enceladus and Europa) –planets and moons around the solar system and exoplanets across the universe covered with water–
The solar system’s awash in water! NASA missions have provided verifiable facts showing ocean worlds and moons exist in our solar system and beyond,other than Earth. Planetary bodieswhere water is locked in a frozen embrace and even flowing beneath miles of ice. Liquid water exobiologists are keen to explore for life forms they would love to meet and get to know a little better during the next phase of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Watch this YouTube video on NASA’s search for life on the ocean worlds of the solar system.
Papers published bythe journal Science and written by Cassini mission scientists and researchers working with the Hubble Space Telescope indicate hydrogen gas believed pouring from the subsurface ocean of Enceladus could potentially provide chemical energy life could use to survive and evolve. Watch this YouTube videocalled “NASA: Ingredients for Life at Saturn’s moon Enceladus“, itshowsthe proof scientists used to come to these conclusions. Their work provides new insights concerning possible oceans of water on moons of Jupiter and Saturn and other ocean moons in the solar system and beyond.
“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. ”These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA’s science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not.”
Researchers believe they have found evidence indicating hydrogen gas could be pouring out of hydrothermal vents on the floor of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and into these oceans of water. Any microbes existing in these distant waters could use this gas as a form of chemical energy to operate biological processes. By combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide dissolved in this ocean of water in a chemical reaction called methanogenesis, geochemists think methane could be produced which could act as the basis of a tree of life similar to the one observed on Earth.
On Earth, this process is thought to be at the root of the tree of life, and could even be essential, critical to the origin of life on our little blue dot. Life existing on our planet requires three main ingredients, liquid water, a source of energy for metabolic processes, and specific chemical ingredients to develop and continue to thrive. This study shows Enceladus could have the right ingredients for life to exist, but planetary scientists and exobiologists are looking for evidence of the presence of sulfur and phosphorus.
Previous data shows the rocky core of this moon is similar to meteorites containing these two elements, so they’re thought to be chemically similar in nature, and scientists are looking for the same chemical ingredients of life found on Earth, primarilycarbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and of course hydrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur.
“Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Cassini detected hydrogen in plumes of gas and frozen matter spewing from Enceladus during the spacecraft’s deepest pass over its surface on October 28, 2015. This combined with previous data obtained by Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) during earlier flybys around 2005,helped scientists determine that nearly 98 percent of the material spraying from the surface of the moon is water. The remaining two percent is thought to be around 1 percent hydrogen with some carbon dioxide, methane,ammonia and assorted unknown molecules in the mix.
Cassini has shown us two independent detections of possible water spewing from the surface of Enceladus. NASA and its partners are currently looking over proposals to send spacecraft to determineif there is an ocean of water beneath its surface by taking a sample. The Europa Life Finder (ELF)is the proposal NASA’s seriously looking at undertaking at this point, but reports indicate a few other proposals are also being discussed.We’ll provide additional information on other proposals as they’re released to media outlets.
“Although we can’t detect life, we’ve found that there’s a food source there for it. It would be like a candy store for microbes,” said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.
Two different observations of possible plumes of water spraying from the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus provides proof hydrothermal activity is occurring beneath. Geophysicists believe hot water is combining chemically with rock and other matter at the bottom of an ocean of water underneath its icy surface to produce hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas exobiologists think could be used as energy, food of a sort, to sustain life forms exobiologists want to meet and learn more about. A meeting that would change our place in the cosmos, the way we think about the universe, and reality.
Astronomers and researchers working with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2016 reported on an observation of a possible plume erupting from the icy surface of Europa in the same general location Hubble observed a possible plume in 2014. This location also corresponds to the unusually warm region with cracks in the icy surface observed by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft back in the 1990s.This provides evidence this phenomenon could be periodic, intermittent in this region of the moon. Mission planners are looking at this region as a possible location to obtain a sample ofwater erupting from a possible ocean of water beneath its icy surface. Watch this video on Europa.
Estimates of the sizeof this most recently observed plume indicate it rose about 62 miles (~100 kilometers) from the surface of Europa, while the plume in 2014 only reached a height of around 30 miles (50 kilometers).
“The plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions, so after Hubble imaged this new plume-like feature on Europa, we looked at that location on the Galileo thermal map. We discovered that Europa’s plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly,” said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Sparks led the Hubble plume studies in both 2014 and 2016.
One interesting thought’s the plumes and the hot spot is somehow linked. If this is the case, it could mean the vented water’s falling onto the surface of the moon, which would change the structure and chemistry of the surface grains and allow them to retain heat longer than the surrounding region. This location would be a great place to search for the ingredients of life and a possible entry point into an ocean of water beneath.
These observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and future looks enable future space missions to Europa and other ocean worlds in the solar system. Specifically, laying the groundwork for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which is setfor a launch sometime in the 2020s.
“If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them,” said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, at NASA Headquarters.
NASA has indicated they’re looking to identify a possible site with persistent, intermittent plume activity as a target location for a mission to Europa to explore using its powerful suite of science instruments. Another team’s currently at work on a powerful ultraviolet camera to add to the Europa Clipper that would offer data similar to that provided by the Hubble Space Telescope, while some members of the Cassini team areworking on a very sensitive, next generation INMS instrument to put on the spacecraft.
Water’s the story of life on Earth! Science has shown it played and plays the main part in the birth,evolution, and sustenance of life on Earth.
NASA’s planning on taking the human journey to the beginning of space and time to the ocean worlds of the solar system during the decades ahead. To search for the ingredients of life and even possibly simple one-celled life forms, of an unknown type. We plan on going along for the ride to have a look for ourselves and we hope to see your name on the ship manifest. We’ll save a seat for you.
Join the human journey to the beginning of space and time by taking part in NASA’s Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. Participants take part in the search for hidden worlds between Neptune and Proxima Centauri.
Planetary scientists and exobiologists are planning a trip to determine if an ocean of water exists beneath its icy surface
Space news (July 15, 2015) – the search for life beyond Earth – With abundant water, a rocky substrate, and available heat energy due to tidal forces, Europa would be one of the best places in the solar system to search for signs of life.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Credit: NASA
“Today we’re taking an exciting step from concept to a mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions.”
NASA’s Europa Multiple Flyby Mission will conduct a detailed survey of the moon and its suitability for sustaining life. Estimates by planetary scientists indicate there could be as much as twice the volume of water as on Earth underneath the icy crust of this distant moon.
Could extremophiles – extreme forms of life found on Earth – exist on Europa? Some exobiologists think it could be possible forms of life found surviving and evolving in extreme environments on our planet could be tough enough. The existence of single-celled life forms in such environments would truly be a monumental point in human history.
NASA astrobiologist Dr. Richard Hoover retrieved this extremophile bacterium from ice dating to over 32,000 years ago. Credit: (NASA/MSFC)
Energy for living things to survive, prosper and evolve could be extracted from the environment if heat energy produced by tidal flexing of the crust of Europa is sufficient to drive chemical reactions. Chemical reactions that could recycle elements, making them available for use by living things in the battle to survive and evolve.
One of the oldest lifeforms still existing on the Earth, a tardigrade or “water bear” is seen through an electron microscope. Less than 1 mm in length, these hardy creatures can withstand the rigors of space travel for extended periods. They’re currently being studied to see just how tough they’re. Credit: ESA/Dr. Ralph O. Schill
Could there be life existing in the oceans of Europa? The known requirements for the existence of life, extraterrestrial or Earth-based, are still pretty basic at this point and they’ll change as we discover and learn more about what life really needs to survive, prosper and evolve.
We have waited patiently since NASA’s Galileo spacecraft first showed us oceans of water could exist beneath the icy surface of Europa. Sometime in the 2020s mankind will launch the Europa Multiple Flyby Mission to this distant moon of Jupiter in a desire to take a look.
The Galileo spacecraft being deployed from the cargo bay of STS-34 Atlantis at 7:15 p.m. EDT on 18th October 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL
All systems go for Europa
The trip to Europa is expected to launch from Cape Canaveral and take about 6.5 years, with gravity-assist from flybys of Venus and Earth, before arriving in the Jupiter system sometime in 2026 or 2027.
The mission calls for a spacecraft to flyby Europa 45 times, conducting a detailed survey and analysis of the icy surface of the moon in high-resolution images. In order to give planetary scientists more information on its composition and the environment and structure of the moon’s interior regions.
“It’s a great day for science,” said Joan Salute, Europa program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We are thrilled to pass the first major milestone in the lifecycle of a mission that will ultimately inform us on the habitability of Europa.”
You can follow the development of NASA’s Europa Multiple Flyby Mission here.
You can learn more about NASA’s space mission here.
You can discover more about Jupiter’s moon Europa here.
June 30 Venus and Jupiter will appear as one big double star in the western sky once the Sun goes down
Space news (June 26, 2015) –
Amateur and professional astronomers are watching as Venus and Jupiter draw steadily closer and will appear to converge on June 30. The two brightest planets in the night sky, Venus and Jupiter have been moving toward convergence since the beginning of the month, which is the closest they’ll appear until August 2016.
Wind the clock back a few thousand years, there would probably be a festival or human sacrifice, in some cultures, about to occur in a few days time. Looking up at Venus and Jupiter as they move closer each night would have been an awe-inspiring and frightening sight, and certainly one an ancient culture would have noticed and worshiped in some way.
Venus and Jupiter are in fact over 800 million miles apart, they only appear closer in the night sky, because of their current positions in their orbits. Venus is currently overtaking or lapping Jupiter as it orbits the Sun, and on June 30 across North America, they’ll appear as one big double star in the night sky.
Viewers can view the convergence with the naked eye although binoculars or a small telescope certainly enhances the show. The best part is the show is viewable anywhere on the planet, check with local astronomers for the best time to view the convergence.
Just look to the West a few hours after sunset on June 30. People in Australia and the East wait until August 1 to see Venus and Jupiter converge, but this won’t diminish the show.
Your eyes will need a few minutes to adapt to light levels, but once the lights go down, you’ll be amazed by the brightness of the event. A stunning 0.33 of a degree apart at convergence, around 30 times closer than at the beginning of the month, Venus and Jupiter can be hidden behind your finger.
There’s nothing to be afraid of, these events don’t significantly increase gravitational forces, and aren’t harbingers of doom.
No need for the human sacrifice!
For more information on the convergence of Venus and Jupiter on June 30 check here.
The most massive planet in the solar system, mighty Jupiter reigns over a miniature solar system composed of over 50 confirmed moons and another 17 space scientists are looking at
Space & astronomy wiki – the planets in the solar system –
The fifth planet from the Sun Mighty Jupiter reigns over the solar system and is often the easiest planet to view, depending on the time of year, using a telescope, binoculars and even naked eyes.
Worshiped by both the Greeks and Romans, mighty Jupiter was named by the Romans, and called Zeus by the Greeks, and these references are still used by both scientists and people today.
Called a gas giant, Jupiter is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium left over from the formation of the Sun and contains more than twice the material making up the rest of the planets.
Gas giants don’t have a solid surface you can stand on, but space scientists believe they could have solid cores about the volume of Earth, with oceans of liquid hydrogen surrounding it.
Orbiting at a distance of 778 million km ( 484 million miles) or 5.2 times the distance between Earth and the Sun, a day on Jupiter – the time it takes for the planet to spin on its axis once – is about 10 hours long, and a year is 4, 333 Earth days.
Data shows gravitationally locked exoplanet with extreme temperature variations between day and night
Space news (October 25, 2014) –
NASA planetary space scientists using data provided by the Hubble Space Telescope recently released the first detailed global map of atmosphere temperatures and water vapor distributions on a “hot Jupiter” class exoplanet. Initially detected in 2011, WASP-43b as this exoplanet is called, is the world where daytime temperatures reach 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and then plunge to below 1,000 degrees at night.
“These measurements have opened the door for new kinds of ways to compare the properties of different types of planets,” said team leader Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago.
“Our observations are the first of their kind in terms of providing a two-dimensional map on the longitude and altitude of the planet’s thermal structure that can be used to constrain atmospheric circulation and dynamical models for hot exoplanets,” said team member Kevin Stevenson of the University of Chicago.
Planetary space scientists were able to detect three complete orbits of WASP-43b, during a four-day period. They were able to successfully combine spectroscopy and study of the rotation of the exoplanet to create the first detailed global map of atmosphere temperatures and water vapor distributions on a “hot Jupiter” class exoplanet.
WASP-43b is 260 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Sextans, which is too distant to be imaged directly by instruments. Planetary space scientists were first able to detect this “hot Jupiter” class exoplanet by observing the lessening of the sunlight as it passed in front of its parent star.
Approximately the same volume as Jupiter, WASP-43b is approximately twice as dense and is so close to its parent star it completes an orbit in just 19 hours. This exoplanet is also gravitationally locked, which means one side is perpetually in the dark, while the other side is constantly bombarded by sunlight.
There are no planets in our solar system exhibiting the extreme environments existing on WASP-43b. This makes it a unique laboratory for the study of the formation and evolution of “hot Jupiter” class exoplanets and planets in general.
“The planet is so hot that all the water in its atmosphere is vaporized, rather than condensed into icy clouds like on Jupiter,” said team member Laura Kreidberg of the University of Chicago.
“The amount of water in the giant planets of our solar system is poorly known because water that has precipitated out of the upper atmospheres of cool gas giant planets like Jupiter is locked away as ice. But so-called “hot Jupiters,” gas giants that have high surface temperatures because they orbit very close to their stars, water is a vapor that can be readily traced.”
“Water is thought to play an important role in the formation of giant planets, since comet-like bodies bombard young planets, delivering most of the water and other molecules that we can observe,” said Jonathan Fortney, a member of the team from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Next for scientists?
Planetary space scientists will now try to figure out how abundant different elements are in the composition of WASP-43b, and similar exoplanets, in order to help understand how they’re formed. The team also plans to collect data on the abundance of water on different classes of exoplanets in the future.
You can read more about NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the hunt for exoplanets here.
Visit here to learn more about all of NASA’s space missions to the stars.
Space news (astronomy leaders of tomorrow: The International Astronomical Search Campaign)
An asteroid is a piece of solid rock with an irregular body ranging in size between 500 meters and hundreds of kilometers. The majority of these bodies can be found in the main asteroid belt, a region of space between Mars and Jupiter. Pieces of rocky material left over from the formation of the solar system over 4.6 billion years ago, NASA scientists estimate there are as many as 40,000 asteroids contained within this main asteroid belt, with a combined mass less than the Moon. Confirming the identity and calculating the orbit of the asteroids contained within this belt is part of the space mission of NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).
The International Astronomical Search Campaign (IASC) is an educational outreach program created to allow high school and college students around the country to participate in identifying and calculating the orbit of every rocky body within the main asteroid belt. Originally created and developed by Patrick Miller of Hardin-Simmons University in the state of Texas, this program has helped tens of thousands of students in 250 schools and 25 countries on five continents learn more about astronomy.
Students participating in the program download images taken of an asteroid within the main asteroid belt in the last few hours by telescopes (24 and 32 inches) located in the Astronomical Institute in Illinois. Students must determine the identity and calculate the three-dimensional orbit of an asteroid using Astrometrica, a software package users need to download directly from the IASC website, within a three-day window.
The telescopes take three images of an asteroid at six-minute intervals, which means it would have moved around five pixels in relation to distant background stars in each image. Astrometrica highlights objects in each image fitting these criteria by putting a red circle around them.
In order to determine an object is an asteroid, students must sort through objects that have moved in the images, and ones that are static. They do this by taking a look at the fit of the point spread function, the signal-to-noise ratio, and any change in the size of an object in the images. If an object has moved in a relatively straight line, stayed about the same size, has a signal-to-noise ratio greater than five, and is approximately round in shape, then it’s probably an asteroid.
Join the human journey to the beginning of space and time today!
A typical International Astronomical Search Campaign lasts about 45 days, during which new asteroids are often discovered, identified, and their orbits determined. This is your chance to become an astronomy leader of tomorrow, by participating in the International Astronomical Search Campaign, and WISE’s mission to identify and calculate the orbit of every rocky body in the main asteroid belt.
You can find more information and news on the space mission of NASA’s WISE spacecraft here.
You can find more on the current campaigns of the International Astronomical Search Campaign here.
Schools desiring to take part in the International Astronomical Search Campaign contact the IASC Director, Dr. J. Patrick Miller by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
After a decade traveling through the solar system, Rosetta is preparing to write history
The image above shows the primary landing site of Philae, Rosetta’s lander, which is expected to make a soft landing on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko at Site J, or backup Site C, on Nov. 12, 2014. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta
Between Mars and Jupiter (Oct. 11, 2014) –
After two weeks of analysis of possible trajectories the flight dynamics and operations teams of the European Space Agency (ESA) is preparing to make the first soft landing of a robot on a comet on Nov. 12, 2014. Expectations are for Rosetta to release Philae at around 08:35 UTC (12:35 a.m PST; 9:35 a.m. Central European Time), if Site J is the target, at a height of 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) above the center of the comet.
If all goes as expected, Philae should make a soft landing about seven hours later, around 7:35 a.m. PST. Here on Earth, mission specialists will get the confirmation of a successful landing 28 minutes and 20 seconds later, due to the time it takes the signal to travel between Rosetta and the Earth. This means we should get word on whether Philae made a successful landing around 16:00 UTC (8 a.m PST; 5 p.m CET).
Should the decision be made to try for backup Site C, instead of Site J, the lander will be released at 13:04 UTC (5:04 a.m. PST; 2:04 p.m. CET) at a distance of about 7.8 miles (12.5 kilometers) from the center of the comet?
In the backup scenario, Philae should land about four hours after release, which means the confirmation signal should arrive at Earth somewhere around 17:30 UTC (9:30 a.m. PST; 6:30 p.m CET). All times are estimates subject to uncertainties of minutes.
The Rosetta team will make a final decision on the landing site on October 14, 2014, after they review the lander to see if it’s ready for launch, and take a look at the high-resolution images of the landing sites they’ll take between now and Nov. 12.
During the week including Oct. 14, the ESA is planning on having a contest to determine the best name for the landing site selected. This is your chance to stamp your name on Rosetta and its mission. Check the Rosetta mission website to sign up for the competition and check out the rules.
A joint space mission spearheaded by the European Space Agency, but with help from NASA and friends, the Rosetta Space Mission is expected to enlighten us about the origins of comets and possibly life on Earth. Comets are time capsules containing material left over from the time when the solar system and Earth were being formed. Scientists will study the gas, dust, and structure of the interior of the comet to unlock secrets about the past, evolution and possible future of Earth and the solar system. They also hope to shine a light on the origins of Earth’s water and how life came to exist on one out of the way little planet in the middle of nowhere.
After Philae has landed, it will begin to study the comet up close using 10 scientific instruments. Rosetta will continue to study the comet and its composition and structure over the next year and a bit as they travel together around the sun and then back to the outer solar system.
Hundreds of year from now, when future archaeoastronomers discover Philae sitting on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, will it create the energy and wonder created by its namesake – the Rosetta Stone – discovered in 1799 by French soldier Pierre-Francois Bouchard near the town of Rosetta in Egypt.
Philae will be sitting
Will scientists hundreds of years in the future argue over the true origin and meaning of the device they discover on a lonely comet circling the sun? Will it create widespread public interest in determining how, why and when it came to rest on a piece of the original building blocks of the solar system? Time will tell the story sometime in the future. A story that could inspire others to delve deeper into the mystery of the solar system and life on Earth.
You can find additional information on the current status of the Rosetta mission here.
Question: Is it possible to detect moons orbiting distant exoplanets? How would this be accomplished?
Questions from the kids (2013-12-30) – If we use our own solar system as an example, we would expect exoplanets to have bodies similar to our own Moon orbiting them. Exomoons, as we’ll refer to them, would be small in comparison to their host planets, and this fact is going to make it more difficult to detect them at the extreme distances involved.
Despite this fact, astronomers believe exomoons should be detectable, using the same techniques and for the same reasons exoplanets are detected. Exomoons have mass, which means they’ll interact gravitationally with their host planet and sun, causing the exoplanet to move in a mathematically predictable manner in response to the force of gravity. The exomoon will constantly pull on the planet gravitationally, which changes the amount of time it takes the planet to pass in front of its host sun. If an exomoon lines up with its home sun from our point of view here on Earth, this would cause a resulting collection of dips in measured sunlight, just before or after the much more significant transits of the host planet in front of its star. Astronomers believe they can use this fact in the future, along with any new techniques they develop, to search for and find distant exomoons orbiting their home planets.
This detection technique is the most practical way astronomers have developed in order to search for and find distant exomoons. This method provides astronomers with a more direct technique to use in the search for exomoons and at present is the best way to do the job. Currently, NASA’s Kepler telescope, which is looking for smaller transiting exoplanets, is probably our best chance of finding a distant exomoon orbiting its home planet. The Kepler telescope really isn’t designed to search for and find distant exomoons, which makes the job a truly daunting task using this telescope. If we use the largest moon in our solar system, Jupiter’s Ganymede, as an example, we would find Ganymede’s diameter is only about 40 percent of Earth’s. This means Ganymede would only block about 0.0014 percent of the Sun’s light during any transit, which is around six times less than the amount blocked by an Earth transit.
All of this is based upon the data and information astronomers have concerning our own solar system, which could be too general, or just wrong. It could be Earth-sized moons orbit transiting planets as large as Jupiter or Saturn, which would mean Kepler would just be able to detect them, and make it possible to search for and find distant exomoons orbiting their home planets.
The best bet astronomers have of finding exomoons orbiting their home planets light-years away will probably be the James Webb Space Telescope once it comes online. This will be when the human journey to the beginning of space and time has the best chance of searching for and finding exomoons orbiting their home planets.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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: