Water plumes on Europa?

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New data from the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that there might be active water plumes issuing from Europa that are fed by the planet’s underground ocean.

In 10 separate occurrences spanning 15 months, the team observed Europa passing in front of Jupiter. They saw what could be plumes erupting on three of these occasions.

This work provides supporting evidence for water plumes on Europa. In 2012, a team led by Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, detected evidence of water vapor erupting from the frigid south polar region of Europa and reaching more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) into space. Although both teams used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph instrument, each used a totally independent method to arrive at the same conclusion.

These results are very very uncertain. As the lead scientist noted twice during the press conference, the data is at the very limits of Hubble’s capabilities. I would not be surprised at all if later observations find that it is in error.

In fact, the press conference itself was more a PR event to lobby for Hubble as well as the James Webb Space Telescope than it was a description of a new discovery. The discovery itself was given a much bigger tease than it really deserves, considering the very uncertain nature of its data. I am a big fan of Hubble, as anyone who has read anything I have written in the past two decades. Nonetheless, I find this blatant lobbying very annoying. Also very annoying will be the naive willingness of many in the press to buy into this story. Expect a lot of silly stories today and tomorrow screaming that water jets coming from Europa have been definitely photographed by Hubble.


  • Oh, it’ll be worse. Expect headlines like “Have scientists found life on Europa?”

  • Richard Hoagland is supposed to be “debating the debate” tonight, but it’s better than even money he’ll find time to claim that he was the first to hypothesize a Europa ocean.

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