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Mysterious Plumes Outline Europa’s Massive Ocean, Offer Clues in Search for Alien Life

On Monday, NASA announced that the agency’s astronomers would present new findings from a recent Europa observation campaign, which it was said resulted in “surprising evidence of activity that may be related to the presence of a subsurface ocean on Europa.”

During the 2 PM press conference, Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, was joined by a number of other scientists who offered visuals that seemed to indicate the presence of “vapor plumes” that are believed to indicate the presence of liquid below Europa’s surface.

Fractures in this illustration show how water might escape to Europa's icy surface (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Fractures in this illustration show how water might escape to Europa’s icy surface (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The new findings were gleaned from images that were captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Some of the team’s visuals for the press conference appeared online in advance of Monday’s press conference, and can be seen here.

Composite images in the NASA collection shows what are suspected to be “plumes” of water vapor, which are seen erupting off of Jupiter’s moon Europa, visible at roughly the 7 o’clock position. The images, superimposed onto newly acquired Hubble data, was assembled using preexisting data collected by NASA during previous Galileo and Voyager missions.

The data used from the Hubble study, while referred to as “new”, was actually obtained on January 26, 2014.

Joining Hertz at the conference were William Sparks, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Britney Schmidt, assistant professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Jennifer Wiseman, senior Hubble project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Similar features on Encadalus which astronomers believe may represent water (NASA/JPL)

Similar features known as “Tiger Strips” were found on Encadalus, which some astronomers believe may represent water (NASA/JPL)

As to why this new data about Europa is significant, the water scientists believe to exist beneath Europa comprises the largest ocean in the known Universe, despite being covered by several several kilometers of ice. This mysterious ocean covers the entirety of Europa, and is believed to be warmer at its depths, due to their relative closeness to the planet’s core.

Hence, the warmer environment below Europa’s icy exterior, in addition to being a source of water on one of Saturn’s moons, is also a key area where scientists hope to discover alien life.

Currently, Europa ranks among the highest possible locations for alien life that may exist in elsewhere in our solar system.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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