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Huge geysers on Jupiter moon?

Dec. 14, 2013
Courtesy of the Uni­vers­ity of Co­logne
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists have found what they de­scribe as huge plumes con­tain­ing wa­ter va­por blast­ing out from Ju­pi­ter’s moon Eu­ro­pa.

About the size of our own moon, Eu­ro­pa is con­sid­ered a po­ten­tial site of liv­ing or­gan­isms, thanks to ev­i­dence that its icy crust con­ceals a liq­uid ocean be­neath. The plumes could help re­veal what’s in that ocean. 

Artist conception of Eu­ropa's icy sur­face with a wa­ter jet. Ju­pi­ter and the sun are in the back­ground. (Im­age cour­te­sy K. Rether­ford, South­west Re­search Inst.)


Lo­renz Roth of the South­west Re­search In­sti­tute in San An­to­nio, Tex­as and Jo­a­chim Saur of the Uni­vers­ity of Co­logne in Ger­ma­ny used the Hub­ble Space Tel­e­scope to show that wa­ter va­por erupts near Eu­ro­pa’s south pole.

The plumes are much larg­er than Earth gey­sers and reach heights of about 200 km (120 miles), they said, an­nounc­ing the find­ings at a NASA press con­fer­ence in San Fran­cis­co and on­line in the jour­nal Sci­ence Dec. 13.

A NA­SA im­age shows sites of wa­ter va­por (blue squares) de­tected on and near Eu­ro­pa. (Im­age cour­te­sy Lo­renz Roth, South­west Re­search Inst. / USGS)


“Wa­ter is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered a bas­ic pre­req­ui­site for life – at least as we know it,” Roth not­ed. The plumes eject ma­te­ri­al that will make fu­ture in­ves­ti­ga­t­ions of the moon much eas­i­er, he added.

“We have been ad­vanc­ing the search for wa­ter and wa­ter plumes with mul­ti­ple Hub­ble cam­paigns,” said Saur. “How­ever, it was only af­ter a cam­era on the Hub­ble Space Tel­e­scope in one of the last Space Shut­tle Mis­sions was re­paired that we were able to achieve enough sen­si­ti­vity” to see the plumes.

The eruption ac­ti­vity varies, the sci­en­tists said: the plumes could only be seen when Eu­ropa was fur­thest from Ju­pi­ter in its or­bit. Ap­par­ent­ly, they said, at this time, tid­al forc­es lead cracks in Eu­ro­pa’s icy crust to wid­en, let­ting out the va­pors. Si­m­i­lar plumes have been dis­cov­ered by the Cas­si­ni space­craft on the Sa­tur­ni­an moon En­cel­a­dus, they not­ed, and the ac­ti­vi­ties there are much like those on Eu­ro­pa dur­ing its or­bit.


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Scientists have found what they describe as huge plumes containing water vapor blasting out from Jupiter’s moon Europa. About the size of our own moon, Europa is considered a potential site of living organisms, thanks to evidence that it harbors a liquid ocean beneath its icy crust. Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas and Joachim Saur of the University of Cologne in Germany used the Hubble Space Telescope to show that water vapor erupts near Europa’s south pole. The plumes are much larger than Earth geysers and reach heights of about 200 km (120 miles), they said, announcing the findings at a NASA press conference in San Francisco and online in the journal Science Dec. 13. “Water is generally considered a basic prerequisite for life – at least as we know it,” Roth noted. The plumes eject material that will make future investigations of the moon much easier, he added. “We have been advancing the search for water and water plumes with multiple Hubble campaigns,” said Saur. “However, it was only after a camera on the Hubble Space Telescope in one of the last Space Shuttle Missions was repaired that we were able to achieve enough sensitivity” to see the plumes. The geyser-like activity varies, the scientists said: the plumes could only be seen when Europe was furthest away from Jupiter in its orbit. Apparently, they said, at this time, tidal forces lead fractures in Europa’s icy crust to widen, letting out the vapors. Similar plumes have been discovered by the Cassini spacecraft on the Saturnian moon Enceladus, they noted, and the activities there are much like those on Europa during its orbit.