Scientists led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have detected water vapor for the first time on the surface of Europe, one of the moons of Jupiter.
Researchers from NASA reported in a study published in the Journal Nature Astronomy that they’ve detected enough water releasing from Europa– 5,202 pounds, or 2,360 kilograms, per second–to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool within minutes.
The team of scientists measured the water vapor by observing the moon through one of the world’s largest telescopes in Hawaii. Confirming that there is water vapor on Europe helps scientists better understand the inner workings of the moon.
Previously, scientists had indications that there was a vast ocean located beneath Europa’s thick Ice sheet. This discovery helps confirms previous data and raises hopes that Europa might actually be one of the few places, in addition to Earth, where life, as we know it, may exist.
Forty years ago, a Voyager spacecraft took the first foreground images of Europe, one of Jupiter’s 79 moons. These revealed brown cracks that cut the icy surface of the moon, which gives Europe the appearance of a criss-cross puzzle.
Missions to the outer solar system in subsequent decades have accumulated enough additional information about Europe to make it a priority research objective in NASA’s search for life.
But of all other places in the solar system, like Mars for example, what makes Europa such an attractive and eye-catching place?
According to scientists Europa may have all the necessary ingredients for life as we know it.
Experts have evidence that one of these ingredients, liquid water, is present beneath the icy surface and that it can sometimes break into space in huge geysers. But no one has been able to confirm the presence of water in these plumes by directly measuring the water molecule itself, until now.
Actually confirming that there is water vapor in Europa may also help experts measure the existence of the ocean located beneath the moon’s icy crust. Estimates suggest that Europa may have a liquid ocean of water twice as large as Earth’s.
Scientists also suspect that another source of water for plumes could be shallow deposits of melted water ice not far below the surface of Europe.
“Essential chemical elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur) 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,” revealed Lucas Paganini, a NASA planetary scientist who led the water detection investigation.
“While scientists have not yet detected liquid water directly, we’ve found the next best thing: water in vapor form.”
Despite this, scientists also discovered that water appears infrequently, at least in quantities large enough to detect it from Earth, Paganini said: “For me, the interesting thing about this work is not only the first direct detection of water on Europa but also the lack of it within the limits of our detection method.”