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Jupiter’s moon Europa is now one of the most promising places to look for life in our solar system. Its subsurface ocean is not different from the Earth. And like Saturn’s moon Enceladus, it may have plumes of water vapor spewing from the underground sea. But, unlike the Enceladus plumes, the water plumes on Europa are challenging to verify. That is why NASA started the Europa Clipper mission on November 30, 2021. When it launches in 2024, it will confirm Europa’s plume.
Enceladus is the icy moon in Saturn and its sixth-largest. It has an ocean of icy water beneath its crust. Its discovery points to the possibility that the ocean is habitable.
Two Water Worlds
Both Europa and Enceladus water oceans have trapped water under the ice crusts. But, there is no confirmation whether Enceladus water vapor plumes erupting into space, originating from an ocean below.
The Cassini spacecraft analysis of the plumes that orbited Saturn between 2004-2017 revealed that the ocean is the same as Earth’s ocean. But, that ocean is under a thicker ice crust than Enceladus and contains twice as much water as all Earth’s oceans combined.
NASA’s Clipper could sample them just like Cassini at Enceladus if there were indeed plumes. However, while there is growing evidence that plumes exist, scientists are not 100% sure.
Many people would like to think that Europa is like Enceladus with plumes constantly spraying the surface, but Europa is different. It would be an exciting discovery if it had plumes, but it depends on its habitable.
The plumes on Enceladus connects to the underground ocean. The Clipper spacecraft has yet to confirm if the plumes originate from the sea or smaller lakes. Meanwhile, it is challenging to detect Europa’s plumes. Evidence suggests that its plumes are smaller and sporadic than Enceladus’. That is likely because Europa has a stronger gravitational pull that keeps the plumes closer to the surface.
NASA’s Clipper will launch in 2024 to determine whether Europa’s water plumes are real and answer questions about its subsurface ocean.
Written by Janet Grace Ortigas
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
Earth Sky: Seeking Europa’s water plumes with Clipper; Paul Scott Anderson
SciTechDaily: Are Water Plumes Spraying From Jupiter’s Moon Europa? NASA’s Europa Clipper Spacecraft Is on the Case
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Sammy K’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of Andrea Luck’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License