Jupiter’s moon Europa, a frozen ice ball believed to hide twice as much liquid water as there is on Earth, just became an even hotter target in the hunt for aliens. Researchers on Monday revealed new photographs from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, and they possibly showed 'fingers' of water vapour shooting out of Europa’s hidden ocean and into space. The grainy Hubble photos, taken in 2014, propose water plumes seldom shoot 125 miles (200 km) into space, then rain back down on the surface. If true, this would be Hubble’s second time catching Europa’s liquid plumes since 2012. Water escapes would also make Europa, which is almost the size of Earth’s Moon, an even more tempting place to look for signs of extraterrestrial life.
A planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was not part of the work, Bob Pappalardo, , told Business Insider, "In upcoming missions, we could fly through those plumes and tell a lot about the chemistry and nature of the surface and perhaps the liquid ocean underneath."
All without having to dig through the moon’s kilometer-thick ice shell. But mysterious water worlds like Europa are not alone; Enceladus around Saturn also shoots out water, and so does Neptune’s moon Triton, possibly because they all hide enormous oceans.
Pappalardo said, "A decade or so ago, we had no clue there might be numerous global oceans within our solar system. Now that is becoming mostly accepted. Satellite oceans may be the best common habitats for life that exist in the Cosmos."
Though, Pappalardo, and even the scientists behind the new study could not promise the new Hubble images really reveal water plumes.
Two of the best Hubble photos displays why the researchers are shy to say what they see are water jets:
Those blotchy 'dark fingers', marked in red, are the supposed water plumes. Why are the images so sandy and difficult to make out? It boils down to Hubble’s abilities, plus what the telescope took pictures of. Hubble was about 400 to 500 million miles (650 - 800 million kilometers) away from Jupiter at the time, and it was taking images of Europa’s shadow as it moved across the gas giant’s surface:
In a press announcement Pappalardo said, provided to Business Insider says this kind of photography is "at the border of what Hubble can do. Trying to just image Europa with the Hubble Space Telescope obviously from Earth is difficult. Trying to image the shadow of a plume, through the light of Jupiter, is an extraordinarily hard beat. There’s basically a lot of noise in the system."
NASA press materials about Hubble’s possible second discovery of the water plumes (by using a completely different manner) lean deeply on the word "if," for example (our emphasis added):
The assistant administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Geoff Yoder, said in the space agency’s main release, "These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may deliver another way to trial Europa’s sub-surface."
Another "if" observed the moon’s water-enriched atmosphere: an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, William Sparks said, "If there is a high atmosphere around Europa, it has the power to block some of the light of Jupiter, and we could see it as a shadow. And so we are researching for absorption capabilities around the limb of Europa as it transited the plane face of Jupiter."
When we pushed Pappalardo for his opinion, he also expressed restraint.
Pappalardo said, "I am not pretty damn sure they are real. I am not pretty sure they are not there. Maybe I am a little more of a skeptic, or need a developed threshold of evidence. But it is certainly reasonable that there are plumes there that are active and random". In spite of his inherent skepticism about the water plume proof, Pappalardo says he is confident about their existence.
He said, "We know there are water plumes out at Neptune’s moon Triton, and Enceladus at Saturn. If they are at Europa, also, they would be a comparatively common thing. It develops something that icy worlds just do; they escape their interiors out into space."
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2018, might have the equipment to analyze the chemistry of such water plumes if they do exist around Europa. However Pappalardo said the finest way to analyze them is to fly a robot right into the vapors: In precise the $2 billion Europa Clipper mission, also known as the Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission, a mission that Pappalardo is a member of. By flying a robot through watery plumes, scientists could compare the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and more chemicals in the liquid to "default" levels seen in asteroids, and thus ask if life might exist there.
Pappalardo said, "I really do not know the probabilities, but the finding of life elsewhere in our solar system would be so important, we have to discover."
He added: "If there is life on Europa, it would almost certainly be a self-sufficiently evolved form of life. Would it use DNA or RNA? Would it use the similar chemistry to store and use energy? Finding extraterrestrial life would revolutionize our knowledge of biology. And at the same time, we’d know we are not alone in the Universe."
Should we discover signs of life with next Europa mission, which is arranged in 2022, scientists are prepared to up the ante?
Finally, fans of Europa would like to make a determined scheme to drop a nuclear-powered robot underneath the icy surface and directly look for signs of life. It might be more possible than we might suppose, too, since a growing line of study progressively shows Europa is not an icy, dead world: its surface is possibly mixed with giant ice plumes that are cracking, breaking up, sinking, and melting, possibly giving a shortcut into the deep ocean below.
This article was originally written by Business Insider.