NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has observed water vapor above the frigid south polar region of Jupiter’s moon Europa, providing the first strong evidence of water plumes erupting off the moon’s surface.
Previous scientific findings from other sources already point to the existence of an ocean located under Europa’s icy crust. Researchers are not yet fully certain whether the detected water vapor is generated by erupting water plumes on the surface, but they are confident this is the most likely explanation.
The Europa and Enceladus plumes have remarkably similar abundances of water vapor. Because Europa has a roughly 12 times stronger gravitational pull than Enceladus, the minus-40-degree-Fahrenheit (minus-40-degree-Celsius) vapor for the most part doesn’t escape into space as it does at Enceladus, but rather falls back onto the surface after reaching an altitude of 125 miles (201 kilometers), according to the Hubble measurements. This could leave bright surface features near the moon’s south polar region, the researchers hypothesize.
“If confirmed, this new observation once again shows the power of the Hubble Space Telescope to explore and opens a new chapter in our search for potentially habitable environments in our solar system,” said John Grunsfeld, an astronaut who participated Hubble servicing missions and now serves as NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington. “The effort and risk we took to upgrade and repair Hubble becomes all the more worthwhile when we learn about exciting discoveries like this one from Europa.”