NASA discovers water vapor — and maybe more — on Jupiter’s moon Europa

NASA has confirmed that one of Jupiter’s 79 moons has water vapor above its surface — and possibly even a liquid water ocean — providing more evidence to scientists’ previous predictions that the moon has the ingredients necessary for life. 

Scientists were able to confirm that above the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, there are plume-like configurations of water vapor. The research team led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center was able to detect faint amounts of water vapor being released by the planet that’s 390.4 million miles away through a telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The team found that Europa releases enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in only a few minutes (about 5,202 pounds per second). 

Europa’s surface is icy, but the water could be present as a liquid water ocean even more significant than Earth’s, or the source of water vapor could stem from shallow reservoirs of melted ice beneath Europa’s surface. 

“This first direct identification of water vapor on Europa is a critical confirmation of our original detections of atomic species, and it highlights the apparent sparsity of large plumes on this icy world,” said Lorenz Roth, an astronomer and physicist from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, in NASA’s press release. 

Water vapor was only detected once out of 17 nights of observations that took place between 2016 and 2017, according to the published findings in the Nature Astronomy journal. 

We won’t get any reliable answers on whether Europa can sustain life, though, until the Europa Clipper mission explores the surface of the moon and its atmosphere, as well as taking photos of the plumes and sampling molecules. NASA said it plans to launch the mission in the mid-2020s. 

Europa joins other celestial bodies such as Mars in the race to find water outside of Earth. There is recent evidence that billions of years ago, Mars had a thick, dense atmosphere that trapped heat and allowed liquid water to exist on the surface.

Remains of shallow, briny pools found within the Gale Crater by Curiosity also provide further evidence that the Red Planet once had liquid water on it. While the current conditions of the surface of Mars are dusty and rocky, Curiosity’s findings are proving that we have a lot more to learn about the history of water on our neighboring planet.