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Jupiter's squirting moons

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Having fun in the hills!

« on: December 15, 2013, 05:39:50 pm »

From the Los Angeles Times....

Water geysers erupt on Europa! Could Jupiter's icy moon host life?

By AMINA KHAN | 3:55PM PST - Thursday, December 12, 2013

An artist's impression shows Jupiter's icy moon Europa shooting plumes of water vapor from around its south pole. ó Picture: M. Kornmesser/NASA.
An artist's impression shows Jupiter's icy moon Europa shooting plumes of water vapor from around its south pole. ó Picture: M. Kornmesser/NASA.

JUPITER's icy moon Europa squirts water like a squishy bath toy when itís squeezed by the gas giantís gravity, scientists say. Using NASAís Hubble Space Telescope, they caught two 124-mile-tall geysers of water vapor spewing out over seven hours from near its south pole.

The discovery, described in the journal Science and at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, shows that Europa is still geophysically active ó and that this world in our own solar system could hold an environment friendly to life.

"Itís exciting," said Lorenz Roth, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and one of the studyís lead authors. "The results are actually more convincing than I would have thought before."

Europa isnít the only squirty moon in our planetary system: Saturnís moon Enceladus has also been caught shooting water out of its south pole in so-called tiger stripes. These pretty plumes are caused by tidal forces. Just as our moonís gravity squeezes and stretches the Earth a bit, causing the oceans to rise and fall, Saturnís massive gravitational pull squeezes and stretches its tiny moon, causing cracks on its icy surface to open and allowing water to shoot out.

Scientists have long wondered whether something similar was happening on Jupiterís moon Europa. After all, its surface is about 65 million years old, which is extremely young by our solar systemís standards, little more than 1.5% of the solar systemís age. This should mean that some geophysical processes must be constantly renewing the surface.

But over several decades, researchers repeatedly failed to catch the moon in action, said Robert Pappalardo, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory planetary scientist who was not involved in the study.

When the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, flew by Europa, it caught a tiny blip on the moon's edge that people thought might be a plume, but it could not be confirmed. Then the 1989 Galileo spacecraft saw a potential plume of its own. But this turned out to be digital residue, traces of a previous image, Pappalardo said.

Even Hubble probably wasnít able to properly see such plumes until space shuttle astronauts on the very last servicing mission for the iconic space telescope in 2009 fixed one of its cameras. Even now, looking for water vapor in the ultraviolet wavelengths of light tests the limits of Hubbleís abilities, scientists said.

To catch Europa in the act, the researchers also knew they had to time their observations right. Saturn's icy moon, Enceladus, shoots water near the farthest point in its orbit from Saturn, when the tidal forces cause cracks at the moonís south pole to open. Around Jupiter, Europa was probably doing the same thing.

Sure enough, when the scientists looked at Europa when it was close to Jupiter in its orbit, they saw nothing. But in December 2012, when the ice moon was at its farthest point from the gas giant, they caught a pair of plumes bearing clear signs of oxygen and hydrogen ó the components of water vapor ó shooting from near the southern pole.

Scientists canít say exactly where the plumes are coming from. It could be that theyíre going directly from solid ice to gas, as Europaís ice sheets rub against each other. But it could also be that the these plumes of vapor may be coming from the ocean of liquid water thought to lie under the moonís frozen surface.

If the moon is still geophysically active, that could make it a prime environment for life.

Another study out of this weekís American Geophysical Union meeting found signs of clays on Europaís surface. Clays are often associated with organic matter, which is why NASAís Mars rover Curiosity is headed to Mount Sharp, whose clay-rich layers could hold signs of life-friendly environments.

Those clays were probably brought to Europa by comets or asteroids, and if such material was able to make it into Europaís subsurface ocean, it could provide the nutrient-rich soup that could allow life to emerge.

"Weíre trying to understand, could this be a habitable environment today? Could there be life there today?" Pappalardo said. "At Europa, it seems the processes that could permit habitability may be going on now."

Perhaps future studies can analyze all the contents of that watery plume and see if there are any signs of organic matter, Pappalardo said. Perhaps a future mission to Europa could fly through the plume and directly sample its contents.

For now, itís important to replicate the results, he added.

"I will sleep better knowing that there are follow-up observations that confirm it," Pappalardo said.

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