New model shows how icy eruptions occur on Jupiter's moon Europa

Researchers from Stanford University have developed a new model that shows a possible source of icy eruptions known to happen on the surface of Europa, one of the moons orbiting Jupiter. The model shows how brine on Jupiter's moon, Europa, can migrate within the moon's icy shell, forming pockets of salty water that erupt onto the surface of Europa when freezing. These findings are important with the Europa Clipper mission to explore the moon coming.

Scientists have known that powerful eruptions possibly spray into space from the moon's surface, raising several important questions about how this occurs. Astrobiologists on Earth want to know what might blast out from Europa's interior in the plumes, which can be miles high. The researchers particularly want to know if the plumes could have any signs of extraterrestrial life. Another critical question is where inside Europa do the plumes originate.

The new model shows that the source of the plumes could be closer to the frozen surface of Europa than previously expected. The new model found that rather than originating deep within Europa's oceans, some of the eruptions could originate from water pockets embedded inside the icy shell of the moon. Researchers on the project used images collected by the Galileo spacecraft to develop a model explaining how a combination of freezing and pressurization could lead to a cryovolcanic eruption or outburst of water.

The research could have implications for the habitability of the oceans under the surface of the moon. It could potentially explain similar eruptions on other icy bodies in the solar system. Europa is a prime candidate for study because speculation suggests the ocean under the moon's frozen crust may contain elements needed to support life. However, if the plumes originate inside the moon's icy shell, they may be less hospitable to life.

Researchers say it's difficult to sustain the chemical energy to power life in shallow reservoirs of water. The research means there's potentially a lesser chance of detecting the habitability of the interior of Europa from space. The focus of this particular research was an 18-mile-wide crater on Europa known as Manannan. The crater was created tens of thousands of years ago by the impact of a comet or asteroid with the moon's icy shell. The new model shows a way for the water to move laterally inside the moon's frozen crust.