Europa is already thought to harbour a liquid ocean beneath its icy crust, making the moon one of the main targets in the search for habitable worlds away from Earth. This new finding is the first observational evidence of water vapour being ejected off the moon's surface.
"The discovery that water vapour is ejected near the
The Hubble discovery makes Europa only the second moon in the Solar System known to have water vapour plumes. In 2005, plumes of water vapour and dust were detected by
The Europa plumes were discovered by Hubble observations in
So far, only water vapour has been detected - unlike the plumes on Enceladus, which also contain ice and dust particles.
"We pushed Hubble to its limits to see this very faint emission," said co-lead author and principal investigator of the Hubble observing campaign
Roth suggests long cracks on Europa's surface, known as linea, might be venting water vapour into space. Similar fissures have been photographed near Enceladus's
caused by friction stresses near the surface?"
Also like Enceladus, the Hubble team found that the intensity of the plumes varies with Europa's orbital position. Active geysers have only been seen when the moon is furthest from Jupiter. But the researchers could not detect any sign of venting when Europa is closer to Jupiter.
One explanation is that the long fractures in the ice crust experience more stress as gravitational tidal forces push and pull on the moon and so open vents at larger distances from Jupiter. The vents are narrowed or closed when at closest approach to the gas giant planet . Team member
variability supports a key prediction that we should see this kind of tidal effect if there is a subsurface ocean on Europa".
Future space probe missions to Europa could confirm that the exact locations and sizes of vents and determine whether they connect to liquid subsurface reservoirs. It is important news for missions such as ESA's JUpiter ICy moons Explorer, a mission planned for launch in 2022, and which aims to explore both Jupiter and three of its largest moons: Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa.
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