Water plumes and clay-type minerals discovered on Jupiter’s ocean moon Europa

NASA and the European Space Agency have made several startling discoveries about the icy Jovian moon Europa. Credit: NASA/ESA
NASA and the European Space Agency have made several startling discoveries about the icy Jovian moon Europa. Credit: NASA/ESA

Europa has intrigued people for decades, ever since the first evidence was found that this small icy moon of Jupiter harbours a subsurface ocean. Additional information about the actual conditions below the surface have been difficult to obtain, since this ocean is covered by a global crust of ice perhaps ten of kilometres thick in places. But perseverance pays off, and now in just this past week there are two new significant discoveries being talked about – evidence from the Hubble Space Telescope for water vapour plumesannounced on Thursdayerupting from Europa’s surface similar to those on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and the first detection of clay-type minerals on the surface, announced on Wednesday.

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Searching for life in Europa’s ocean – with a tiny submarine

Artist's conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters. Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University
Artist’s conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters.
Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University

For decades, Jupiter’s moon Europa has been the focus of fascination and debate. Why? Because it has a global ocean – a deep, salty ocean similar to those on Earth, except that in Europa’s case it is always covered by a crust of ice. Speculation has grown that there could be life of some kind in that alien watery darkness, and now there is a new proposal for how to look for it – a tiny submarine!

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Does Europa have ‘icy spikes’ on its surface?

Penitentes on the Andes mountains on Earth. Is there something similar on Europa as well? Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Penitentes on the Andes mountains on Earth. Is there something similar on Europa as well?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Europa is a fascinating little world, a moon with an icy crust and a subsurface global ocean. The environment is similar to the ice-covered waters at the Earth’s poles. Now scientists think that there may be another feature which is also found on Earth – huge frozen spikes of ice on the surface.

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Planetary archive: Jupiter, Europa and Io

Europa floats in front of Jupiter's turbulent clouds below. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Europa floats in front of Jupiter’s turbulent clouds below, as seen by Voyager 1 in 1979.
Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

These are a couple of great images from many years ago, taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it passed Jupiter. The first, in dramatic black & white, shows the moon Europa (with its subsurface ocean) passing in front of Jupiter’s turbulent clouds below, including the Great Red Spot on the left. It kind of looks like a Van Gogh painting, but it’s very real.

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More evidence that Europa’s ocean is similar to Earth’s

Artist's illustration of how water from Europa's underground ocean can reach the surface. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Artist’s illustration of how water from Europa’s underground ocean can reach the surface.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

As one of the few places in the solar system other than Earth known to have an ocean, Europa has become one of the most fascinating worlds that we know of. This moon of Jupiter is small, but enticing – beneath its frozen surface of ice is a global ocean of water, making it a primary focus of study, especially in terms of the search for life elsewhere.

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