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Hubble spies water vapor plumes on Jupiter's Europa

Jupiter's moon Europa appears to be venting off water vapor plumes that may be connected to a hidden ocean.

Water vapor plume art
An artist's concept of a plume of water vapor on Europa.
NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

NASA has announced that Jupiter's moon Europa has got the vapors. Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope show evidence that plumes of water vapor are venting from the moon's south pole.

Scientists already suspect Europa of hiding an ocean underneath its top layer of ice. Researchers are still trying to determine if the detected water vapor is coming from the moon's surface, but it appears to be the most likely explanation.

"If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa's crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa's potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice. And that is tremendously exciting," says Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

If the findings are supported by further data, then Europa will join a very short list of moons with water vapor plumes. The only other moon known to do so is Saturn's moon Enceladus. Enceladus' vapors tend to float off into space, but Europa's gravitational pull drags its vapors back down to the surface. This may create bright features on the south pole surface.

"If confirmed, this new observation once again shows the power of the Hubble Space Telescope to explore and opens a new chapter in our search for potentially habitable environments in our solar system," says astronaut John Grunsfeld, who worked on servicing missions for the Hubble telescope. It may also help feed the desire to send a manned mission to Jupiter's fascinating moon.

Europa vapor location
The location of water vapor on Europa's south pole. NASA/ESA/L. Roth/SWRI/University of Cologne