Water Vapor Discovered on Europa

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Europa, one of Jupiter’s 79 moons, is a high-priority target of investigation in NASA’s search for life as it my contain liquid water.

Now a team of NASA scientists has detected water vapor for the first time above Europa’s surface.

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Scientists have discovered water vapor on the surface of Europa, one of the 79 moons of Jupiter. Picture by NASA/JPL

Europa has huge geysers spewing liquid water in outer space, but no measurements were able to confirm the presence of water in these plumes.

But, now, it’s done! An international research team has detected water vapor for the first time above Europa’s surface by using one of the world’s biggest telescopes in Hawaii at W. M. Keck Observatory atop the dormant Mauna Kea volcano.

This new discovery supports the idea of a huge liquid water ocean that sits beneath the moon’s ice shell.

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 vapor form.

The authors reported in the new study 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.

But the water appears infrequently, at least in amounts large enough to detect from Earth (once in 17 nights of spectrograph measurements).

There is mounting evidence of water on Europa, but to clearly know if liquid water exists on/in Europa, we will probably have to wait for the first results of the Europa Clipper Mission that will be launched to scan Europa’s surface, deep interior, thin atmosphere, subsurface ocean, and its potential for life. [Nature, NASA]

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