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Jupiter Europa Moon Geysers Are Evidence of Water; Could Contain Life

Image: Jupiter Europa Moon Geysers Are Evidence of Water; Could Contain Life An artist's concept of a plume of water vapor thought to be ejected off the frigid, icy surface of the Jovian moon Europa.

By Clyde Hughes   |   Friday, 13 Dec 2013 02:22 PM

The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted evidence that Jupiter's moon Europa has giant plumes of water erupting more than 20 times higher than Mount Everest near its south pole.

An announcement on the giant Europa geysers was made Thursday in the journal Science and is being presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Urgent: Do You Approve Or Disapprove of President Obama's Job Performance? Vote Now in Urgent Poll

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Scientists theorize that Europa, which is about the size of Earth, has an ocean that that is about 100 miles deep hidden beneath 10 to 15 miles of the satellite's icy crust.

"If these giant waterspouts are confirmed, they could be a way to detect signs of any life that might exist in the underground ocean that researchers suspect Europa has," Space.com reports. "They were spotted by comparing recent and older images of Europa taken by the Hubble Space Telescope."

Scientists believe that since on Earth there is life virtually wherever there is water, evidence of water on Europa could mean life forms there.

"This is pretty amazing news," Slate's Phil Plait wrote. "We've known for a while that Europa has liquid water under its surface, but this is the first direct evidence of it. Not only that, it changes how we think the water and surface interact. It’s hard to say whether this makes it more likely that there are little Europan fishies swimming around down there, but it does mean it’ll be easier to take a look."

The study's lead author Lorenz Roth, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, told Space.com that "a subsurface ocean at Europa potentially provides all conditions for microbial life — at least life we know."

Europa's elliptical orbit around Jupiter may have some effect on the plumes. When the moon is closer to Jupiter, the giant planet's gravity helps heat up the interior of Europa, melting the ice.

"Jupiter has a ridiculously intense magnetic field, and electrons caught in that field are accelerated to high speed," Plait wrote. "These electrons slam into the water molecules from Europa, breaking them up into individual atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, which then reveal their presence by glowing in the ultraviolet."

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