But scientists think the Jovian satellite harbors a huge amount of liquid water - perhaps twice as much water as Earth does, in fact - in a deep global ocean sloshing beneath the object's ice shell. Now, new studies based on data compiled on site by the Galileo probe provide the best proof that the water plumes are a property of the icy moon of Jupiter.
We just didn't know about it until now. Second, these plumes mean that a spacecraft could have easy access to Europa's water without having to drill through its ice crust.
"If plumes exist, and we can directly sample what's coming from the interior of Europa, then we can more easily get at whether Europa has the ingredients for life", Pappalardo said.
The newly analyzed Galileo data provides "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa", said study lead author Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of MI.
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The 20-year-old data supports the findings of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which uncovered clues of possible water plumes in the same "hotspot" on Europa during its observations of Jupiter's moon in 2014 and 2016. That Hubble data, however, wasn't definitive proof of erupting plumes because it's such a hard observation to make from Earth's orbit.
"The data has been there for a long time, but it didn't get picked up by us until recently after we saw those Hubble images that seem to suggest Europa might have plumes erupting into space". During this pass, the spacecraft's magnetometer measured significant changes, as did Galileo's plasma wave spectrometer.
That said, the new study doesn't necessarily confirm the existence of a plume, either.
Study lead author Xianzhe Jia, from the University of Michigan's Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, told Space.com that the new analysis of the Galileo data offers "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa". A member of the Europa Clipper science team, McGrath delivered a presentation to fellow team scientists, highlighting other Hubble observations of Europa. The particles that are spread by the plumes will be found in the atmosphere of Europa. This indicates that a region of the moon potentially 1000 kilometers long could host such activity, though it is impossible to say whether this is a single plume or many, like the complex system of fractures and vents seen on Enceladus.
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"To detect a plume for certain, we'll have to return to the Jupiter system, and NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft, now in development, will do just that", Cynthia Phillips, a NASA researcher told Mashable. One version of the model included plumes on the surface of Europa, whereas another did not.
However, according to Phillips, that kind of mission also has its limitations when it comes to discerning habitability.
An artist's illustration of a plume of water vapour from Jupiter's moon Europa.
And many questions remain about what is contained in the plumes, and whether that includes some form of life.
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"So, if plume material is collected, it may not be a direct sample of the ocean layer, but will still yield important insights into the composition of materials within Europa, and the potential for habitability - could there be environments on Europa where life could survive?"