What has long been suspected has likely now confirmed: water is present under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
As I’ve noted on numerous occasions in this space Sunday articles, it’s long been thought that an ocean of water exists under the cracked icy crust of Europa, potentially kept liquid by tidal forces created by the moon being constantly “flexed” by the competing gravities of Jupiter and the other large Moons pulling on it, thus generating large amounts of heat deep within its core – heat sufficient to keep an ocean possibly tens of kilometres deep in a liquid state.
Circumstantial evidence for this water has already been found:
- During its time studying the Jovian system between 1995 and 2003, NASA’s Galileo probe detected perturbations in Jupiter’s magnetic field near Europa – perturbations scientists attributed to a salty ocean under the moon’s frozen surface, since a salty ocean can conduct electricity.
- In 2012 the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) captured an image of Europa showing what appeared to be a plume of water vapour rising from one of the many cracks in Europa’s surface – crack themselves pointed to as evidence of the tidal flexing mentioned above. The plume rose some 200 km from the moon.
- In 2014, HST captured images of a similar plume rising some 160 km above Europa.
Now a new paper, A measurement of water vapour amid a largely quiescent environment on Europa, published on November 18th, 2019 in Nature, offers the first direct evidence that water is indeed present on Europa. Specifically, the team behind the study, led by US planetary scientist Lucas Paganini, claims to have confirmed the existence of water vapour on the surface of the moon.
Essential chemical elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur) 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. While scientists have not yet detected liquid water directly, we’ve found the next best thing: water in vapour form.
– Lucas Paganini
Using the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, Paganini and his team studied Europa over a total of 17 nights between 2016 and 2017. Using the telescope’s spectrograph, they looked for the specific frequencies of infra-red light given off by water when it interacts with solar radiation. When observing Europa’s leading hemisphere as it orbits Jupiter, the team found those signals, estimating that they’d discovered sufficient water vapour to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in a matter of minutes. However, the discovery has been somewhat tempered by the fact water may only be released relatively infrequently.
Such infrequent releases help explain why it has taken so long to confirm the existence above Europa, but there are other reasons as well. The components that comprise water have long been known to exist on the moon whether or not they indicate the presence of water. Thus, detecting these components within a plume doesn’t necessarily equate to the discovery of water vapour – not unless they are in the right combinations. There’s a further pair of complications in that none of our orbital capabilities are specifically designed to seek signs of water within the atmospheres of the other planets or expelled from icy moons. So Earth-based instruments – like the Keck telescope spectrographs – must be used, and these deal with the naturally occurring water vapour in our own atmosphere.
Within Paganini’s team there is confidence that their findings are correct, as they diligently perform a number of checks and tests to remove possible contamination of their data by Earth-based water vapour. Even so, they are the first to acknowledge that close-up, direct studies of Europa are required – particularly to ascertain if any water under the surface of Europa does form a globe-spanning ocean, or if it is confined to reservoirs or fully liquid water trapped within an icy, slushly mantle. It is hoped that NASA’s Europa Clipper and Europe’s JUICE mission (both of which I’ve “previewed” in Space Sunday: to explore Europa, August 2019) will help address questions like this.