The news: Officials from NASA announced Thursday, December 12, that Europa, one of Jupiter’s many moons, shows evidence of water spurting from its south pole.
Images from the Hubble Telescope suggest to water geysers gushing vapor into the moon’s atmosphere, more than 100 miles high. The announcement was made in a research paper published in Science, and announced Thursday at the American Geophysical Union.
The backstory: The discovery of water plumes gives credence to the long-held theory that Europa is home to an underground liquid ocean. Earlier images of Europa suggested a thin crust that could fissure from water under the surface.
Researchers believe the geysers are caused by tidal forces from Jupiter’s powerful gravity, which cause the moon to expand and contract, enabling jets of water to escape through the surface periodically. And if the cracks the water is spurting through are large enough, that means the underground ocean may eventually be accessible to researchers.
What this means: Why do spouts of water on a moon that’s almost 500,000,000 miles from the sun matter? Because, aliens. Duh.
If there is indeed water on Europa, then it might meet the criteria for the scientific definition of something that can support life, i.e., inhabitable. There’s even a chance the water contains some sort of organisms.
This makes Europa a particular target for future space exploration. “What is there are organics in [the water]? That’s getting to the question of ‘Are we alone in the universe?’” said John Grunsfeld, a top space science official at NASA.
Whether there’s life on Europa or not, it’s always pretty neat when researchers make a discovery that points to habitable planets besides Earth. Any possibilities of even touching down on Europa with robotic rovers are along way off – but they’re cool to think about.