The Hubble Space Telescope has observed water plumes coming from Jupiter’s moon, Europa, for the very first time. Lorenz Roth, whose team made the discovery said: “this is tremendously exciting.”

Roth explains that they had some evidence that “pointed to the existence of an ocean located under Europa’s icy crust.” But this is the first time that they have actually seen water vapour plume and they assume it is coming from the moon’s icy crust.

Europa Water plumes

This is 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 far the simplest explanation for this water vapor is that it erupted from plumes on the surface of Europa,” says Roth.

“If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa’s crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice. And that is tremendously exciting.”

NASA has been investigating these happenings since December 2012. They wanted to make sure that they were indeed water vapour plumes and not some other inexplicable occurence.

Roth says that “long cracks on Europa’s surface, known as lineae, might be venting water vapor into space”. It would seem that the plumes of water are affected by Jupiter’s gravity and the moon’s orbital position.

Kurt Retherford, one of the team members says: “The apparent plume variability supports a key prediction that Europa should tidally flex by a significant amount if it has a subsurface ocean.”

These water plumes do not reach in to space because Europa’s gravity keep it there: “Instead, it falls back onto the surface after reaching an altitude of 125 miles, according to the Hubble measurements. This could leave bright surface features near the moon’s south polar region, the researchers hypothesize,” explains NASA.

Exciting stuff!

[Image via NASA]