NASA's Big Reveal: Jupiter's Moon Europa May Spout Water Plumes into Space

Jupiter's icy moon, Europa, may spout water vapor miles into space, says NASA, making it possible to better determine whether its vast underwater oceans support extraterrestrial life.

NASA has announced the likely presence of "plumes of water vapor" erupting from the surface of Europa, Jupiter's icy moon. The frigid satellite has long been thought of as candidate for possible microbial life due to its vast subsurface ocean of water. While NASA does plan to send missions to Europa, as Bill Nye the Science Guy explains here, the recent discovery makes likely our ability to investigate Europa's water without bombing or drilling through miles and miles of ice.


“If there are plumes emerging from Europa, it is significant because it means we may be able to explore that ocean for organic chemicals or even signs of life without having to drill through unknown miles of ice,” said William Sparks at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which manages Hubble.

Europa is believed to have twice as much seawater as Earth beneath miles of frozen water. This makes Europa the most likely candidate for life in our solar system beyond Earth, i.e. alien life! Even before today's announcement from NASA, Bill Nye explained how a future mission would search for life by taking advantage of Europa's water geysers:

But before NASA scientists put forth a theory of what's happening hundreds of millions of miles away, you can be sure they have some empirical data behind them. Today's announcement is the result of two separate investigations into the surface of Europa:

2012

Using the Hubble Space telescope, a team of NASA astronomers observed a "faint aurora" resulting from the interaction of Jupiter and Europa's magnetic fields. These measurements were consistent with the pattern of water molecules dissipating into space, and after considering several possible explanations, scientists landed on water vapor plumes emitting from the surface of Europa as the most plausible. 

2015

A different team of NASA scientists used the same Hubble telescope to image Europa in ultraviolet lights as the moon transited across the face of Jupiter. The telescope is believed to have captured direct images of water vapor plumes rising 125 miles above the surface of Jupiter's frozen moon.

--

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less