NASA spies what may be plumes of water erupting on surface of Europa

Using the Hubble Space Telescope scientists have imaged what they think might be plumes of water erupting on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. This is the first direct finding to bolster other observations made using the Hubble that lead scientists to believe that Europa erupts with water plumes that throw water vapor high into the atmosphere of Europa. The big deal with this discovery is that it suggests that future missions to Europa might be able to gather samples of the subsurface ocean without having to drill through miles of ice.

"Europa's ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system," said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may provide another way to sample Europa's subsurface."

Scientists estimate that the plumes of water erupt as high as 125 miles into the atmosphere before they rain the water and other material back down onto the surface of Europa. Scientists estimate that Europa has a subsurface ocean that contains twice as much water as Earth. The catch is that the ocean is covered by hard ice of unknown thickness. The water plumes appear as finger like projections and were observed as the team was viewing Europa's limb as the moon passed in front of Jupiter.

The goal of the team viewing Europa as it passed in front of Jupiter was to determine if the moon had a thin atmosphere or exosphere, but they realized the same method used for this determination could view the water plumes. The scientists imaged Europa ten separate times spanning 15 months and observed what they believe to be water plumes on three occasions.