Nasa's latest discovery could make finding life in our solar system a lot easier


Nasa's Hubble Space Telescope has been used to find what astronomers believe may be water vapour plumes erupting off the surface of Europa, Jupiter's moon - which might be good news for finding life in the solar system.

Europa has a global ocean containing twice the amount of water as Earth's oceans, but due to surface temperatures of below minus 150C the water is protected by a layer of incredibly hard ice of unknown thickness. If the plumes are proved to exist, they may make future missions much easier, allowing them to sample the cold moon's oceans without the need to drill through miles of ice.

"Europa's ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbour life in the solar system," said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for Nasa's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Europa with annotated plumes
This image shows actual data from the Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph with an image of Europa imposed upon it (Nasa/W Sparks)

The plumes are estimated to reach heights of 125 miles from Europa's surface, meaning missions to gather water may not even need to land on Europa's surface.

The original goal of the team's observations was to determine whether Europa has a thin, extended atmosphere, or exosphere by watching Europa as it passed in front of Jupiter. On three of 10 occasions, as the moon passed its planet the plumes could be seen erupting.

This diagram shows how the plumes on Europa are seen in silhouette as the moon moves across the face of Jupiter
Europa makes a complete orbit of Jupiter in just 3.5 Earth days (Nasa/A Feild)

The findings act as supporting evidence after a team from the Southwest Research Institute detected evidence of water vapour erupting from the south polar region of Europa in 2012. In 2005 jets of water vapour were also detected on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Nasa's James Webb Space Telescope, which has infrared vision, is scheduled for launch in 2018 and may be used to confirm the findings - while missions to Europa are now being planned by the space agency.

"This observation opens up a world of possibilities," said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at Nasa headquarters in Washington. "We look forward to future missions - such as the James Webb Space Telescope - to follow up on this exciting discovery."