Nov 17, 2020 - Science

Where Europa's water lives

Europa. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Europa. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

The plumes seen erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa might be fed by water trapped in the world's crust, according to a new study.

Why it matters: Europa is thought to be one of the best places to hunt for life in the solar system, in part because of the subsurface ocean scientists expect exists beneath its icy crust.

What they found: The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggests that instead of water shooting directly from the subsurface ocean, the plumes may be coming from trapped pools in the moon's crust instead.

  • This could complicate efforts to use those plumes to get an easy sample of Europa's ocean.
  • If the plumes are erupting from trapped water in the crust and not the ocean itself, that water may not be representative of the habitability of the rest of the ocean.
  • “Understanding where these water plumes are coming from is very important for knowing whether future Europa explorers could have a chance to actually detect life from space without probing Europa’s ocean,” Gregor Steinbrügge, one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.

What's next: This new model of Europa's plumes and water will help scientists as they're developing NASA's Europa Clipper mission to the far-away moon.

  • That mission, expected to launch in the mid-2020s, is designed to gather more information about whether Europa is habitable or not.
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