An international research team led out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has detected the water vapour above the surface of Europa. Jupiter’s icy moon is one of the highest priority targets for NASA’s search for extraterrestrial life and the new discovery is a big deal for the space agency.
Lucas Paganini — a NASA planetary scientist who led the water detection investigation — and his team reported in the journal Nature Astronomy on November 18 that they 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 measured the water vapour by peering at Europa through one of the world’s biggest telescopes in Hawaii. Confirming that water vapour is present above Europa helps scientists better understand the inner workings of the moon,” NASA said.
Looking at the Jupiter’s icy moon from the WM Keck Observatory atop the dormant Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii, the scientists saw water molecules at Europa’s leading hemisphere– the side of the moon that’s always facing in the direction of the moon’s orbit around Jupiter.
Scientists have long supported the possibility that the icy moon may possess all of the ingredients necessary for life. They have the evidence that one of these ingredients, liquid water, is present under the icy surface of Europa and may sometimes erupt into space in huge geysers. However, up until now, it could not actually confirm it by directly measuring the water molecule itself.
The new discovery confirms that there is a liquid water ocean, possibly twice as big as Earth’s, sloshing beneath Europa’s miles-thick ice shell. Scientists also suspect that there is another source of water for the plumes that could be shallow reservoirs of melted water ice not far below Europa’s surface.
“It’s also possible that Jupiter’s strong radiation field is stripping water particles from Europa’s ice shell, though the recent investigation argued against this mechanism as the source of the observed water,” NASA said.
“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,” said 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 vapour form.”