NASA Presents New Evidence for Geyser Activity on Europa

Monday, 26 September 2016 - 4:43PM
Space
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Monday, 26 September 2016 - 4:43PM
NASA Presents New Evidence for Geyser Activity on Europa
Scientists have long known that Europa is a prime candidate for extraterrestrial life, as a result of its subsurface ocean that could support microbial organisms. Now, NASA's Hubble telescope has discovered evidence that the moon is spewing geothermally heated water jets into space.

At a press conference, NASA announced that Hubble's observation of the ocean-covered moon in ultraviolet wavelengths revealed likely geyser activity. This not only indicates that scientists could more easily study the composition of the ocean, but also that the water could be warm enough to sustain life.

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"Today, we are presenting new Hubble evidence for water vapor plumes being expelled from the ice surface of Europa," William Sparks, an astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said in a NASA press briefing (via Gizmodo). "Observations indicate a global, saline liquid water ocean engulfs the moon at the present time. If there are plumes emerging, it is significant because it means we may be able to explore that ocean... without having to drill through miles of ice."
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While the geysers have not technically been confirmed, NASA is confident in the results. The ultraviolet wavelengths revealed what looked like "dark fingers," or specific protuberances on the surface that are, in all likelihood, spumes of water from beneath the surface.

Opening quote
"We're not aware of any instrumental artifacts that could cause these features; they are statistically significant. But we remain cautious because we are working at difficult wavelengths for Hubble," Sparks said (via BBC). "We do not claim to have proven the existence of plumes, but rather to have contributed evidence that such activity may be present."
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Curt Niebur, who is working on the upcoming NASA mission to Europa, says that it will be very difficult to find proof of microbial life, but that they will nevertheless have instruments on board the spacecraft that will "aggressively investigate" the plumes of water.

Opening quote
"The Europa flyby mission which will launch in the 2020s is not a life-finding mission," he said. "That mission is focused on assessing the habitability of Europa. And we do it in this way for a very simple reason: we know how to measure habitability; we have a lot of experience at doing that; we have a lot of instruments that are very robust and good at doing that. When it comes to finding life, we don't have as much experience. And we actually have an ongoing and vigorous debate in the scientific community as to the best way of going about detecting life on a mission such as this."
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