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NASA's astronomers spied the presence of molecular water in Europa's atmosphere, in quantities large enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool.
NASA confirmed the presence of water vapor on Europa in an announcement on Monday.
Europa has been a high priority for scientists because, as an ice-covered moon with a subsurface salty liquid ocean, it has been identified as one of the ideal spots for hosting life.
Using the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Maunakea on Hawaiʻi Island, scientists for the first time have directly detected water vapor above the Jovian moon of Europa. However, up until now, it could not actually confirm it by directly measuring the water molecule itself.
Recently, through one of Hawaii's most powerful telescopes, NASA researchers were able to closely observe Europa. They predicted that radiation from Jupiter would bombard the moon's icy surface and create water vapor.
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"We [made] diligent [security] checks to [eliminate potential] contaminants in ground-based investigations", Goddard planetary scientist Avi Mandell said of the water vapor discovery in the statement.
"We suggest that the outgassing of water vapour on Europa occurs at lower levels than previously estimated, with only rare localized events of stronger activity", Paganini and his team wrote in the paper. It's the best evidence yet for a water plume erupting from the moon's surface. This would allow scientists a first look at the material inside Europa's ocean that's spewing through the icy crust, and that could reveal whether Europa's ocean is habitable. Then, a 2018 analysis of the data found evidence of massive plumes of liquid.
In the meantime, scientists announced in 2013 that they had used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to detect the chemical elements hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) - components of water (H2O) - in plume-like configurations in Europa's atmosphere.
This adds to the intrigue of other previously discovered factors associated with the potential for life on Europa. This included the Galileo probe's measurements of an irregular magnetic field in the late 90s and early 2000s, which were seen as indicative of a sloshy, conductive liquid beneath the surface.
Upcoming space missions, like Europa Clipper and JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer), will get a closer look at the moon.
It will try to take images of any plumes and sample the molecules it finds in the atmosphere with its mass spectrometers.