Confirmed Water Vapor Plumes On Europa

Discover Europa: Jupiter’s Enigmatic Moon with Liquid Water. 

Video of the day November 25th 2019


What Is Europa?

If you don’t know what Europa is we’ll be happy to explain it to you. Basically, it’s one of the many moons of Jupiter. Jupiter has the most moons in the solar system with 79, and this particular one is one of the bigger ones, and one that has had the eyes of scientists for a long time. Mainly because it has certain things that make it special. Mainly, ice.

Since ice is a state of water, that would seem to indicate that water could be possible on the planet. About 40 years ago the space probe known as Voyager was able to get next to Europa and note that there were cracks among the surface of the planet, making it look like an “eyeball” according to NASA. While that isn’t strange per se, it did give a hope, and also a potential, one that stated that there could be liquid water just under the surface of the moon.

Sci-fi science? Hardly. In fact, the science behind it was very real, and so scientists dived even further into what Europa was and how it could potentially have liquid water. This led to the theory that the moon, unbeknownst to us, not only had water under the surface, it would occasionally jettison that water into the air via plumes of water. Think of them like geysers. The only problem is that while we had reason to believe this was real…we couldn’t prove it…until recently that is.

Water Vapor In the Air

In the later part of November, international scientists that were studying Europa found something rather incredible, they found definitive confirmation that there was water vapor in the air just above the surface of the moon. Given that the atmosphere of the moon is thin and made mainly of Oxygen, that would prove that this water vapor came not from it, but from the ground. Meaning that the idea of water plumes shooting up into the air is now very, very likely.

Granted, we haven’t seen the plumes in any way, not even with still imagery, but the water vapor had to get there somehow, right? Clearly the ice on the surface didn’t melt and somehow rise up, it’s too far from the sun to do that, so how else could it have gotten up there? Water plumes, that’s how. This discovery is changing everything we’ve ever thought about the moon, as well as determining why it could be a big step towards not just finding life on other places, but how this place could be a potential colonization spot:

“Essential chemical elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur) and sources of energy, two of three requirements for life, are found all over the solar system. But the third — liquid water — is somewhat hard to find beyond Earth,” said Lucas Paganini, a NASA planetary scientist who led the water detection investigation. “While scientists have not yet detected liquid water directly, we’ve found the next best thing: water in vapor form.”

How Does Water Vapor Mean So Much?

I’m sure after hearing that quote and hearing about the joy that this discovery has made scientists you’re likely very confused about why this is so important as a whole. Does water vapor truly mean so much for life? Does finding it really make Europa a place where humanity can colonize in the future?

The answers are yes, and yes.

Think about what Paganini said, there are many elements that help comprise life as we know it, and there are three requirements for life. Two of the sources are actually rather easy to find, and we’ve found them on other planets, including ones that we want to colonize in some way shape or form. But to find liquid water, whether it be on the surface of a planet or on a moon has proven to be a much harder ordeal.

It’s true that we’ve discovered planets that may be “water worlds” but the jury is still out on whether that is the case. Not to mention that they are so out of range that humanity wouldn’t be able to reach them for some time, and thus, having Europa, a moon that is only two planets away from where Earth is, means a great deal. Plus, even if there is even a speck of hope that this water vapor could lead to the discovery of some kind of life? Even microbial? That would be huge. So yeah, it may seem basic, especially since we have water in abundance here on Earth. But in space? It’s a different story, and one that we still have yet to fully turn the page on yet.

Could We Really Colonize On Europa?

That is the question, isn’t it? Does this revelation suggest that we can colonize on a moon of Jupiter? Technically speaking…yes, yes it does. The idea of colonizing a moon (as I’ll explain in a bit) is not far-fetched, the problem has always been whether the moon makes sense for us to live on. For example, we can’t really live on our moon despite it being so close because it doesn’t have an atmosphere, doesn’t have ice or any kind of water that we can use, and it doesn’t have a natural energy source (that we know of…) that can work in our favor to make things easier to live on it. We can explore it fine as we’ve shown, but barring advances in technology, it’s not a feasible and logical place to live.

While Europa is MUCH farther away, it has things we can use to make colonization more plausible. For example, as noted earlier, the atmosphere may be thin (which isn’t ideal) but it does have a lot of oxygen. Which means we could use that in our colonies to survive. We wouldn’t be able to live on the surface without protection, but the air that we could breathe would theoretically be much easier to obtain than on other places.

Then, with the water being both in the air and on the surface via ice and underground via the plumes, we could use that to help hydrate the colony and potentially even grow things on the surface in the right conditions.

There are plenty of other problems that we’d have to deal with, I grant you that. But with water vapor being on the planet we have a HUGE next step towards maybe having a colony on another planet, and or, a moon.

The Mars Solution

Let’s talk about one of those problems really quick. Mainly, the way we’d get to Europa at all. As I just explained, the moon is in Jupiter’s orbit, which means that right now it’s REALLY far away from Earth. Getting to there will not be easy even if we decide it’s the perfect place to colonize. Which means we’ll either need to get a really fast space engine made, or, we would need to make a “pit stop” somewhere. Say…the planet that lies between Earth and Jupiter? You know it as Mars.

If you think about it, Mars is not only the perfect place to launch a mission to Europa, it lines up with what is currently going on right now in NASA, SpaceX, and more. There are many missions planned to not just get to Mars with a human craft but to colonize it. So since scientists are likely going to be studying Europa for many years (and we’ll prove why that is later) to figure out the ins and outs of this water system that it has, it gives NASA and SpaceX plenty of time to land on Mars and start building colonies there.

There are a lot of grand plans in the works for that, and one of them is making construction of the colonies much easier via in the works technology. So, if things go on schedule, and then it’s determined that there is a good potential for making a mission to Europa, we wouldn’t have to go straight there and hope it works. We can go from Mars to Europa and cut out a lot of time and effort and hassle.

It’s not a perfect plan, and it would still take a lot of effort, but going from there to Jupiter versus Earth to Jupiter is a much better plan and could lead to true intersystem travel…

This artist's rendering shows NASA's Europa mission spacecraft


If you think that humanity is only focusing on one moon to colonize on, you would be wrong. Because the other major moon that we’re aiming to colonize potentially is Titan. Which is one of the many moons on the planet of Saturn.

In terms of size, Titan is bigger than you might think. It is the largest moon that orbits Saturn, and it is bigger than our moon and even the planet Mercury. That beings said, it’s only 40% the size of Earth, so that would be a small problem in terms of hosting a lot of people there per se.

However, what it lacks in space, it makes up for in gasses and hydrocarbons. Specifically, liquid hydrocarbons, which has many scientists thinking that this is a great place to go because the amounts of liquid hydrocarbons that they’re seeing on Titan is greater than that of the entirety of Earth:

“Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material—it’s a giant factory of organic chemicals”, said Ralph Lorenz, who leads the study of Titan based on radar data from Cassini. “This vast carbon inventory is an important window into the geology and climate history of Titan.”

Just to give you an image of what you can expect by that statement, there are literal seas and lakes filled with methane, ethane and other liquid hydrocarbons. Some have even been measured to be bigger than the Great Lakes in the United States.

And since Carbon is an important part of life as a whole, that means we would be able to use the gas deposits to help fuel our culture…whatever we put there that is. Then, there’s the atmosphere of the moon of Titan.

We talked about Titan in this article

With Titan, like Europa, it does have an atmosphere, and one comprised of very familiar elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and methane, all of which are in our own atmosphere. Because of this, some scientists have stated that Titan is the “most hospitable” place in our solar system that humans could survive at. 

High praise indeed, don’t you think? So you see, we’re looking at many options. But why is that?

Why The Search For Multiple Potential Hospitable Places To Live?

So at present, humanity has ideas that Mars, Europa, and Titan (among others of course) could be viable places for humanity to live on, in one way or another. But why is it that we’re so bent on finding these places in the first place? Why are we so determined to leave Earth? Simple, because Earth isn’t what it used to be, and we’re facing the problems of that right now. So much so that if we don’t leave, the Earth will die by our hands.

This goes beyond basic things like global warming and even overpopulation, the more that humanity is on Earth, the more that the balance of the planet breaks. There are many species of animals that are endangered or dying out completely. Which can severely hurt the planet as a whole if they go extinct. Humanity is chopping down trees at an incredible rate as well, and that causes its own problems.

So for many, the idea of going to another place to live, even if it’s not as great as Earth is in terms of “easy living” isn’t just necessary, it’s vital. Humanity wants to live on, and if the planet can’t sustain us as it is right now, we need to go to a place where we can sustain ourselves.

Not to mention, it’s the dream of many parts of humanity to live amongst the stars, and since we can’t seem to find a planet within reach that can service our needs, we need to do with what we have and move on with that. So that means a red planet that only has water in certain areas and moons that have certain elements that we can use to survive.

The Future Of Europa

So, with the big discovery of Europa’s water vapor…where does that leave us? What is the next step for the moon and its potential for life and habitation? That would be the Europa Clipper mission. Don’t get the name confused, it’s not about giving the moon a haircut. Rather, it’s an orbital probe that will go to Europa and dive deep into what it is, and get scans. Specifically:

” When it arrives at Europa, the Clipper orbiter will conduct a detailed survey of Europa’s surface, deep interior, thin atmosphere, subsurface ocean, and potentially even smaller active vents. Clipper will try to take images of any plumes and sample the molecules it finds in the atmosphere with its mass spectrometers. It will also seek out a fruitful site from which a future Europa lander could collect a sample. These efforts should further unlock the secrets of Europa and its potential for life.”

There you have it, we’re planning on really trying to find out more about the moon and how it can help humanity in the future, and whether it may just have life on it. Will we find what we’re looking for? It’s hard to say, but with each discovery of a moon, planet, or something in between that didn’t have something like water vapor before, we get closer to the answers we seek.

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