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Scientists caught Europa spewing enough water vapor to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in minutes. But where is it coming from?
In the search for life in our solar system, Mars tends to steal the spotlight (thanks, David Bowie). But in recent years Jupiter’s fourth largest moon, Europa, has emerged as a promising extraterrestrial nursery. Planetary scientists have long suspected Europa may harbor a vast liquid water ocean beneath its thick, icy crust. If Europa’s ocean also has a source of energy—think hydrothermal vents—and a few choice chemical elements, there’s a decent chance it could support basic lifeforms.
This theory makes a lot of assumptions, but on Monday it received one of its biggest boosts yet. An international team of astronomers announced they directly detected water vapor in Europa’s atmosphere for the first time. As detailed in a paper published in Nature Astronomy, this method of detection is strong evidence that liquid water exists beneath the surface of Europa.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean the water vapor is coming from an ocean,” says NASA planetary scientist Lucas Paganini. “But it does seem like this detection is connected to liquid water under the surface.”
A lot of what we know about Europa was gleaned from data collected by the Galileo spacecraft on its tour of Jupiter in the late ’90s. One of the most remarkable findings from that mission was that something was messing with Jupiter’s magnetic field. Based on this finding, planetary scientists hypothesized Europa might be home to an electrically conductive fluid, like salt water, that was causing the magnetic disturbances.
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