Lunar and Planetary Institute

The Search for Europa's Plumes

March 30, 2020

The Search for Europa’s Plumes


Plume material (vented vapor or particles ejected into space and redeposited on the surface) has been confirmed on three satellites in our solar system: Io, Enceladus, and Triton. Jupiter's large ocean moon Europa is also thought to be an active world with plumes after water vapor was detected above its surface. Plume deposits on Europa would be a valuable discovery, giving scientists insights into plume history and ocean composition. However, efforts to identify them have been challenging.

The search for plume deposits on Europa involves construction and comparison of global maps using the highest-resolution images available from the Voyager, Galileo, and New Horizons missions. Using these global images, scientists look for changes and patterns on the surface of Europa. Such changes might indicate where, when, and if eruptive plumes (similar to those on Enceladus or Triton) have occurred on the surface. In a new article published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, Dr. Paul Schenk, a senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, reports that in the time span between the Voyager era and New Horizons (1979–2007), no plume deposits were confirmed on the surface. There are several possible explanations for this: The higher gravity on Europa could restrict the distance that plume materials are ejected, resulting in smaller “footprints,” although deposits from larger candidate plumes have not been detected using this method; the plumes are sporadic or variable; or, the Jovian radiation environment could alter or even erase the plume deposits. The upcoming Europa Clipper mission will require novel detection techniques to confirm the presence of eruptive plumes on Europa.

For more information, visit: The Search for Europa's Plumes: No Surface Patterns or Changes 1979–2007?

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