NASA Discovered Mysterious Plumes Rising From One Of Jupiter’s Moons

The NASA team can barely believe their eyes. There are unusual signals coming from the distant moon of Europa – just one of dozens of mysterious satellites orbiting Jupiter. And although the data has traveled more than 390 million miles across the Solar System, the scientists are unfortunately completely certain about what it shows: a vast plume has burst forth from Europa’s surface. Their hearts sink as they realize the crushing consequences this discovery may have for humanity.

Observed from below

The team were certainly in the best place to make their observations. They were at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii – which plays home to some of the largest telescopes on Earth. At an altitude of 13,796 feet, the facility enjoys unobstructed views of the night sky, free from light pollution and other atmospheric distortions.

A probe to Jupiter

And it’s no wonder the scientists are excited, as Europa could be hiding something that has the potential to completely transform our world. First, though, we need to know a little more. That will likely involve sending a probe to the distant Jupiter system — perhaps even landing on Europa’s surface.

One massive undertaking

Jupiter itself is no slouch, though. The Red Giant is huge, with a mass approximately two and a half times greater than every other planet put together. It’s also not a pleasant place to be. Jupiter’s atmosphere is gaseous and tempestuous, ravaged by storms and vortices, poisonous ammonia clouds and ferocious winds.

Reaching its core

Naturally, that makes Jupiter highly inhospitable and unlikely to harbor carbon-based life. Us humans wouldn’t exactly thrive there, either, and so it’s pretty much a bust as far as terraforming or colonization goes. But with all that said, scientists may still send a probe through Jupiter’s atmosphere to see if it has any surface at all – or just a core.

Visible to the naked eye

Yes, soon we may know more about one of the most radiant points in the night sky. And Jupiter has long been a subject of human fascination — both as an abstract mythical god and as a scientifically observed physical phenomenon. Clearly visible to the naked eye, the giant planet was known as Marduk to the Babylonians and Zeus to the Greeks, but we now call it by its Roman name.

Early discoveries

Mind you, we didn’t have the capacity to observe Jupiter in detail until 1610. Using a telescope, pioneering astronomer Galileo Galilei was the first person to truly see the planet as well as four of its moons: Ganymede, Io, Callisto and Europa. Then, 50 years later, Giovanni Cassini found that Jupiter was covered in pastel-shaded bands. After that, it was only a matter of time before the famous Great Red Spot was discovered.

Getting closer

But it wasn’t until the late 20th century that a spacecraft was able to venture close enough to the planet. In 1973 the Pioneer 10 space probe completed the first flyby of Jupiter and gathered groundbreaking data about its physical properties. Since then, a total of nine different craft have ventured into Jupiter’s celestial neighborhood.

Entering its orbit

The first craft to enter Jupiter’s actual orbit? That honor goes to the aptly named Galileo probe. Galileo was perfectly placed to observe the death of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which bowled headfirst into Jupiter in 1994. And on December 7, 1995, the probe commenced a seven-year orbit of the huge planet, providing scientists with a wealth of data about its planetary systems — as well as its moons.

79 moons

Europa’s one of at least 79 moons orbiting Jupiter — although there could well be more. And while the four so-called Galilean moons are some of the largest of their kind in the Solar System, Europa is the tiniest of the bunch. It’s all relative, of course. At 1,900 miles in diameter, Europa’s hardly a speck in the sky!

Its composition tells a story

But the most fascinating aspect of Europa – to scientists, at least – is what it’s made of. Along with its iron-nickel core and body of silicon-heavy rock, the moon has an ice-covered surface covered with cracks and lines. Those fissures have led experts to wonder whether there may be vast and powerful oceans lying underneath.

Disturbance in the magnetic field

And Galileo has found evidence that may prove this hypothesis. On a flyby, the probe detected disturbances in Jupiter’s magnetic field close to the orbit of Europa. One of the assumptions? An electrically conductive fluid — such as a briny sea — could be responsible. But perhaps the most exciting find came from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2012.

The gigantic plume

Led by Lorenz Roth of Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the Hubble study identified hydrogen and oxygen atoms — that is, the constituent elements of water — within a mysterious atmospheric plume near the moon’s south pole. Approximately 20 times the height of Mount Everest, the formation was vast by earthly standards, and the scientists deduced that it must be partly composed of water vapor.

Evidence of water vapor

Then, in 2018, researchers revisited the original Galileo probe data and found convincing evidence that Europa might be ejecting water vapor. And to top it all off, in November 2019 the journal Nature Astronomy published the findings of Dr. Lucas Paganini and his team. They were the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientists who had received signals from Europa in Hawaii.

Figuring out its composition

Using a spectrograph, the team had deciphered the chemical composition of Europa’s atmosphere by measuring the infrared light it was emanating. You see, water molecules emit certain infrared frequencies when they interact with solar radiation. And when the NASA team observed the Europan atmosphere from February 2016 to May 2017, they detected a plume of water vapor.

Burping up LOTS of fluid

But this was no mere puff of steam. According to Paganini and his team, Europa had ejected some 5,202 pounds of water per second. That’s the equivalent in volume of an Olympic swimming pool over the course of just a few minutes! Still, that was barely enough for the phenomenon to be detected millions of miles away on Earth.

Determining the ebb and flow

And while the scientists believe that such enormous plumes are relatively infrequent, they can’t yet determine whether Europa ejects smaller plumes more regularly. In a NASA press release, Paganini was quoted as saying, “For me, the interesting thing about this work is not only the first direct detection of water above Europa, but also the lack thereof within the limits of our detection method.”

Ocean evidence

This may be, but the findings still provide compelling evidence for the claim that there is a vast ocean beneath Europa’s ice sheets. That’s one probable source of the detected plumes, although some scientists have put forward yet another theory. They’ve speculated that the plumes actually emanate from reservoirs of melted ice water below its surface. And then there’s another less likely hypothesis: radiation from Jupiter is causing the moon to release water.

Thrilling possibility

Why is this all so important? Well, water molecules on Europa present a thrilling possibility: the presence of biological life there. Yes, while Jupiter is too inhospitable for anything much to thrive, Europa possesses all the vital ingredients. And there are only a few celestial bodies in our Solar System that you can say this about.

Requirements for life

Paganini explained more, saying, “Essential chemical elements... and sources of energy — two of three requirements for life — are found all over the solar system. But the third — liquid water — is somewhat hard to find beyond Earth… [And] while scientists have not yet detected liquid water directly, we’ve found the next best thing: water in vapor form.”

Narrowing candidates with biological activity

So, soon, we may know whether or not humanity is alone in the universe. Thanks to the development of powerful new probes and telescopes, our knowledge of alien exoplanets is expanding exponentially. And we certainly shouldn’t discount the improvements in our scientific understanding of so-called biosignatures — or physical signs of carbon-based life. Using these, we can narrow down the exoplanets that are viable candidates for biological activity.

Investigating Europa

Take Europa, for instance. NASA has long regarded the Jovian moon as one of the Solar System’s most likely harbors of alien life forms and has prioritized it for investigation. But if Europa does contain life — and if humans are able to locate it — what kind of form would it take, hidden beneath the ice and trapped in the moon’s vast and gloomy oceans?

Europa Report

This was the question asked by the 2013 sci-fi movie Europa Report, which sees six astronauts travel to Europa to look for other beings. And what they find is, well, pretty darn scary! The organisms the astronauts encounter turn out to be monstrous, bioluminescent sea creatures with giant tentacles. But that’s not likely to happen in reality. The experts believe that Europa would harbor only simple, single-celled life – if, indeed, it has any at all.

NASA probe Juno

So, let’s leave science fiction behind and focus on the facts. Currently, our most advanced exploration of the Jupiter system is being conducted by the NASA probe Juno. After a five-year journey across the solar system, Juno entered the planet’s orbit on July 5, 2016, and almost immediately it began beaming back incredible data and images.

Collecting data

At its closest point, known as the perijove, Juno gets within 2,600 miles of Jupiter. That may still seem pretty far away, but then there are hazardous radiation belts encircling the Red Giant. And it’s still near enough for Juno to collect some detailed data during its flybys, which can stretch for several hours.

Juno's findings

What can Juno tell us? Well, the probe’s findings will hopefully enhance our knowledge of how Jupiter formed and evolved. That way, we can also expand our understanding of giant planets and their role within solar systems. And Juno’s onboard devices are capable of measuring many of the planet’s atmospheric properties, including its temperature, chemical composition, magnetic fields, water content, cloud movements and ammonia levels.

Mind-blowing images

Best of all, the probe is equipped with a high-resolution camera that so far has snapped some genuinely mind-blowing images. Previously, the Hubble Space Telescope had managed to capture a crown of colorful auroras at the planet’s north pole, but that’s nothing compared to Juno’s close-ups of psychedelic storms.

Glimpsing Jupiter's north pole

Scott Bolton certainly seemed to be wowed, anyway. Bolton is a Juno project leader from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, and he told NASA, “[We have the] first glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole, and it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before. It’s bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms. There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zone and belts that we are used to. This image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter.”

Massive cyclones

And there’s more. Thanks to Juno, we now know that both of Jupiter’s poles are engulfed in massive cyclones — each the size of the United States. Yes, really! Scientists still have plenty of questions about the phenomena, though. For example, had the cyclones only just appeared when they were spotted? Or had they raged for hundreds of years or more like Jupiter’s Red Spot?

Tracking their movements

Hinting at these mysteries, Juno scientist Cheng Li told NASA, “Nature is revealing new physics regarding fluid motions and how giant planet atmospheres work. We are beginning to grasp it through observations and computer simulations. Future Juno flybys will help us further refine our understanding by revealing how the cyclones evolve over time.”

Surrounded by storms

Li was speaking after Juno had recorded yet another incredible development: the formation of a new cyclone at the south pole. Previously, the probe had sent images of five apparently stable storms organized in a pentagon around a central cyclone. Quipping about the phenomenon, Bolton said, “It almost appeared like the polar cycles were part of a private club that seemed to resist new members.”

It nearly cost them the mission

Even more incredibly, the images of the new cyclone were obtained only after a nerve-wracking navigational procedure that could have ended in mission failure. In a near-brush with disaster, Juno very nearly flew into Jupiter’s shadow. That would have caused the probe’s solar-powered onboard systems to shut down and fail, and it was only thanks to the quick thinking of NASA engineers that catastrophe was avoided.

A genius solution

Bolton said of this potential mishap, “No sunlight means no power, so there was real risk we might freeze to death… [But] the engineers came up with a completely new way out of the problem: jump Jupiter’s shadow. It was nothing less than a navigation stroke of genius. [And] lo and behold, first thing out of the gate on the other side, we make another fundamental discovery.”

A risky maneuver

To complete the maneuver, the NASA team used the probe’s reaction control system in a novel and unintended way. According to their calculations, Juno could avoid the shadow if its trajectory was modified weeks ahead of its perijove. Practically speaking, that meant the folks at NASA needed to perform a controlled thruster burn when Juno was furthest away in its orbit from Jupiter. And all credit to them, the plan worked.

The next mission

So, what’s next? Well, a probe known as the Europa Clipper is set to travel to the Jupiter system later this decade — possibly launching as soon as 2023. It is scheduled to conduct no fewer than 45 flybys of the watery moon, traveling within just 16 miles of its surface. And if all goes well, the probe will gather a range of data using an onboard suite of instruments. In the process, that should determine the likelihood of Europa harboring life.

New means of investigating

Specifically, the spacecraft’s instruments will include radars capable of sensing beneath Europa’s icy crust as well as a magnetometer for detecting gravity and potentially tidal movements. There’ll also be high-resolution cameras and spectrometers for creating maps of the moon’s surface. The 20-feet-high probe will itself be powered by solar arrays measuring 72 feet from end to end.

Combatting the radiation

And to protect its onboard instruments from Jupiter’s high-energy radiation, the Europa Clipper will also be fitted with thick metallic “armor” made of titanium and aluminum. Without such protective measures, the probe would age rapidly and eventually malfunction — which, let’s face it, would be a pretty costly failure.

Measuring the temperature

Part of the probe’s mission will include measuring Europa’s surface temperature using a thermal sensor. This may then enable NASA scientists to locate the moon’s mysterious plumes and examine them in greater detail. And through analyzing the water vapor and other particles in the surrounding atmosphere, the experts should be able to glean groundbreaking new information regarding Europa’s chemical composition.

Answers about alien life

Most excitingly, the Europa Clipper could tell us whether there are alien beings on the moon. After all, while Europa is considerably colder and darker than our home planet, our knowledge of the Earth’s biosphere proves that life is hardy and quite capable of flourishing in the toughest of places. For example, complex ecosystems have been identified near hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, where temperatures and pressures are extraordinarily extreme.

The steps to finding life

Of course, identifying life on Europa may require a few final audacious steps: landing on the moon’s surface, drilling through the ice and extracting physical samples from its oceans if they exist. Even then, there is no guarantee of success. But if Europa does turn out to be barren, the search will go on. After all, according to the famous Drake equation, there are likely to be billions of planets in the universe that harbor life – all just waiting to be discovered.