NASA: water spewing plumes on Europa?

Last week NASA made an announcement about a Monday press release that would announce “something surprising” they found on Europa. The announcement generated a lot of buzz, but then got a bit diluted in the news cycle amid all the Presidential Debate hoopla yesterday. Here it is:

NASA’s Hubble Spots Possible Water Plumes Erupting on Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Composite image of Europa superimposed on Hubble data

This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The plumes, photographed by NASA’s Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. Hubble’s ultraviolet sensitivity allowed for the features — rising over 100 miles (160 kilometers) above Europa’s icy surface — to be discerned. The water is believed to come from a subsurface ocean on Europa. The Hubble data were taken on January 26, 2014. The image of Europa, superimposed on the Hubble data, is assembled from data from the Galileo and Voyager missions.

Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have imaged what may be water vapor plumes erupting off the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. This finding bolsters other Hubble observations suggesting the icy moon erupts with high altitude water vapor plumes.

The observation increases the possibility that missions to Europa may be able to sample Europa’s ocean without having to drill through miles of ice.

“Europa’s ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may provide another way to sample Europa’s subsurface.”

The plumes are estimated to rise about 125 miles (200 kilometers) before, presumably, raining material back down onto Europa’s surface. Europa has a huge global ocean containing twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, but it is protected by a layer of extremely cold and hard ice of unknown thickness. The plumes provide a tantalizing opportunity to gather samples originating from under the surface without having to land or drill through the ice.

The team, led by William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore observed these finger-like projections while viewing Europa’s limb as the moon passed in front of Jupiter.

The original goal of the team’s observing proposal was to determine whether Europa has a thin, extended atmosphere, or exosphere. Using the same observing method that detects atmospheres around planets orbiting other stars, the team realized if there was water vapor venting from Europa’s surface, this observation would be an excellent way to see it.

“The atmosphere of an extrasolar planet blocks some of the starlight that is behind it,” Sparks explained. “If there is a thin atmosphere around Europa, it has the potential to block some of the light of Jupiter, and we could see it as a silhouette. And so we were looking for absorption features around the limb of Europa as it transited the smooth face of Jupiter.”

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.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took direct ultraviolet images of the icy moon Europa transiting across the disk of Jupiter. Out of 10 observations, Hubble saw what may be water vapor plumes on three of the images. This adds another piece of supporting evidence to the existence of water vapor plumes on Europa; Hubble also detected spectroscopic signatures of water vapor in 2012.

Credits: Goddard/Katrina Jackson

Download this video in HD formats from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

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.

“When we calculate in a completely different way the amount of material that would be needed to create these absorption features, it’s pretty similar to what Roth and his team found,” Sparks said. “The estimates for the mass are similar, the estimates for the height of the plumes are similar. The latitude of two of the plume candidates we see corresponds to their earlier work.”

But as of yet, the two teams have not simultaneously detected the plumes using their independent techniques. Observations thus far have suggested the plumes could be highly variable, meaning that they may sporadically erupt for some time and then die down. For example, observations by Roth’s team within a week of one of the detections by Sparks’ team failed to detect any plumes.

If confirmed, Europa would be the second moon in the solar system known to have water vapor plumes. In 2005, NASA’s Cassini orbiter detected jets of water vapor and dust spewing off the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Scientists may use the infrared vision of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018, to confirm venting or plume activity on Europa. NASA also is formulating a mission to Europa with a payload that could confirm the presence of plumes and study them from close range during multiple flybys.

“Hubble’s unique capabilities enabled it to capture these plumes, once again demonstrating Hubble’s ability to make observations it was never designed to make,” said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This observation opens up a world of possibilities, and we look forward to future missions — such as the James Webb Space Telescope — to follow up on this exciting discovery.”

The work by Sparks and his colleagues will be published in the Sept. 29 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (the European Space Agency.) NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. STScI, which is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, conducts Hubble science operations.

For images and more information about Europa and Hubble, visit:




71 thoughts on “NASA: water spewing plumes on Europa?

  1. But we already knew that didn’t we ??

    Water plumes are so last week.

    I do like the pictures though. I’d like to be there to see that.


    • Windows keeps telling me that the WUWT website certificate is not valid.

      Apparently the name is rong.

      What gives; it’s a blessed nuisance.


      • I’d like to be able to use punch cards for input and output also. It is so handy to be able to carry a box of them around. I dropped the damn box once. Good thing I had remembered to number the cards in order.


      • Ed Zuiderwijk says: September 27, 2016 at 1:22 pm

        Buy a Linux box. Just a suggestion.

        Buy? Just take some hardware you probably have kicking around and put Linux on it. It’s dead easy and it’s free.

      • Today I have searched whatsupwiththat 3 times, and the search result (Bing on Firefox) returned no direct homepage link to the site.

        I thought that was strange, but perhaps it has something to do with the certification point you raise.

      • The certificate is invalid. It expired. I asked my son about it and he replied that someone has to do some homework. It has been happening for some weeks. My BB keeps trying to protect me from this site.

      • Just to mention that I do not see any certificate issue from this side.
        I do use Linux & Firefox but not sure if that is the reason…?

      • The “Common Name” is wrong…

        It’s a WordPress thing:

        Why do I see in my certificate’s common name (CN)?

        If you have a custom domain on, we secure it using a SSL certificate from the Let’s Encrypt Certificate Authority. To improve the performance and simplicity of this process, we use the same Common Name,, for all certificates and store the unique domain names in the SubjectAltName attribute. All modern browsers honor this attribute and will not display any warnings or errors to you or your visitors.

        I get the warning too, FF 45.3

        Whatever… TLS is broken by design.

      • My number crunching Optics software doesn’t run on any Unix lookalike.

        And working with *nix on the HP Work station I used to have to use was a royal pain in the neck.

        As for windows; the last good version of Windows was MSDOS 3.20.

        Windows is the world’s most complex computer virus.


      • George, I’m sure Anthony addressed this in the past — it has to do w/Wordpress and the https address. I get that warning on all WordPress sites.

      • That certainly was some extra detail worth coming across.

        But seriously, I was pleased to hear what they said about proof and science. Pity they do not apply the same standard to claims made in ‘climate science.’ When you are on a mission to save the world, not dealing with outer space, I guess that lesser standards apply.

  2. Again, hoopla and then disappointment. Water spewing into the air, or atmosphere, shouldn’t any ejected water just freeze, it’s -160 degrees Celsius at the equator and colder as you go towards the pole

    So such events should be leaving a long lasting ice feature after they occur. A significant one I’d imagine looking at the size of the plume

    • The chance of life outside of Earth is 50%. The chance of no other life outside of Earth is 50%. We don’t know.

    • But that is just a conclusion from statistics. So there is no actual scientific evidence of any other life. And when I say no evidence, I mean that so far this isn’t one single binary digit of scientific evidence of other life anywhere else.

      If you have some evidence from observations of life elsewhere do tell us.


      • Of course there is no evidence.

        But from what little we know about life, and its abundance here on Earth, and from the sheer scale of numbers involved in the universe, I would accept it is likely that there is some life somewhere out in the universe, but of course this may not be intelligent life, and may be just simple single cell life (or broadly similar).

        The jump to complex multi cellular life appears to be complex, That may be a bridge too far, given the time that it took to evolve on Earth, but I would be surprised if multi-cellular life does not exist elsewhere. But will we ever know? Unless we find it in the solar system, we will be none the wiser for at least 100 years (if not more).

      • @ George and Richard. : The odds of there against there being “life” out there other than you and me are ( no pun intended) astronomical. The similarities as far as stars to ours, the now proven fact that there are other solar systems would tend to lead that there is other life out there.

        Maybe one day some other than our current theories about the speed of light, the light bending of of other stars etc will lead to new discoveries in Physics, Math etc. We can only hope there is other life out there .

        The universe would be a depressing place if it is only our race as being called “intelligent”.

      • Science is supposed to be about ” observations and experimentation ” of the real universe.

        It isn’t about religion or philosophy, or dreams, or ” meta ” anything.

        The belief that “There just has to be” other life out there, is a crutch for those who don’t want to address the problems here on earth, as if some other more intelligent (whatever that means) beings will save us from ourselves.

        When we get scientific observational evidence OF other life forms out there; simply wonderful, but until then it’s a mindless exercise.

        I wouldn’t invest one brass Razoo in such searches.


      • George, there’s a difference between “no evidence” and “no proof.” We have evidence, but no conclusive proof. There is a case to be made for example for the ALH84001 meteorite containing fossils of nanobacteria-sized forms and no alternate mineralogical explanation as yet. There is also evidence from that Viking Lander onboard experiments that might indicate life, but again, because of technological weaknesses in data and analysis methods and methodological assumptions about what life is, the data is not conclusive. Statistical arguments are employed for good reason. If you handicap it, the odds favor other planets supporting life, and given the sheer scale of the known universe, they favor other complex life and even civilizations.

  3. Aaaagh!!! The Ice on Europa is MELTING!!!

    Per haps Prof Wadhams will tell us in how many years it will be completely gone?

      • It’s because of MAN!!!!

        Think about it. Man doesn’t go to Europa for millions of years, and it grows a thick beautiful natural coat of ice. Then man starts going there, and within a lifetime we see the unmistakable signs of pollution and destruction as man wantonly destroys nature in his quest for profit!!

        Well, the correlation argument is good enough for climate change…

      • Dodgy Geezer. I know you must be right since, truly, isn’t climate change really just an extension of the population bomb? The green agenda is untiringly the same since Parson Malthus: there are just too many dirty people in the universe.

  4. thought we knew about this years ago…. well, at least I’m not surprised by this. We’ve seen this on other planetary moons

    • Ah yes. A two-fer NASA double down on Europa’s Old Faithful. This on the heels of something flowing on Mars. Water is being shopped after the giganticus raticus fornicus moon walks. The boys behind the curtain are all in with Darwin and Lucy (the Leakey’s had it down pat) and their Piltdown Man. Water and the life-forming amoebas that crawl from it hold the keys. . . etc. . .etc . . .

      Sept. 2015 – NASA Confirms Evidence That Liquid Water Flows on Today’s Mars! (excla. added)

      Sept. 2016 and they find more water! Eurik . . . I mean Europa!

      Sept. 2017?! Someone turn the channel . . . turn the channel! Let’s see what else is on!

  5. Jeff,

    “that belief only holds true if Earth is not ‘special’”

    The Earth is definitely not special, except perhaps to mankind. The coefficients in Drake’s equation keep getting bigger and bigger and it won’t be long before we know that an Earth like planet in the habitable zone with an Earth like Moon and Jupiter like outer planet acting as guard is not the 1 in 300 billion possibility that would makes us special within our galaxy, moreover; we continue to learn that life is far more robust than we thought. I wouldn’t be surprised if of the 10K stars visible to the naked eye, more than a 1/4 support some form of life and more than 1 other of them supports intelligent life.

    • The Drake Equation is an interesting discussion point, but nothing more. The key figures used to derive N are the answers the equation is supposed to provide – how often does life evolve and how often does life evolve to be reasonably intelligent/technologically developed?

      If the answer is just once to either, then there’s just us. And that’s the question isn’t it?

      • Tim,

        “If the answer is just once to either, then there’s just us. And that’s the question isn’t it?”

        The physics and chemistry of life is relatively straightforward, is the same throughout the Universe and extra terrestrial amino acids have already been found in carbonaceous meteorites, so the foundation for life seems primordial. The answer to your first question about how easily life arises is then either once and then it spread throughout the galaxy or it can evolve independently and relatively easily. I suspect that if (when) we find other life in our solar system, the chemistry will be very familiar and the controversy will whether or not Earth life is unique, but whether terrestrial life came from or went to wherever we found other life or did it all come from somewhere else.

        The answer to the second question is less clear, except to the extent that mankind is the existence proof that it can happen. Regardless of whether the evolution of man was organic, tweaked by ET or designed by deity, it has happened before and/or it will happen again. Even if only a one in a trillion stars harbors intelligent life, the Universe will be teeming with it and this is about how improbably it must be for us to be the only intelligent life in our galaxy.

        While its common to think that technologically advanced life will destroy itself with its own technology, which is also behind the fear of CAGW, once intelligent life leaves its home solar system, it will likely be able to survive indefinitely, thus independently evolved intelligent life will accumulate and not just exist during brief flashes of time with no overlap. Of course, any other intelligent life we find may be millions to billions of years ahead of us.

      • The Drake equation does not impress me; far too many unknowns, assumptions and speculations for it to yield anything other than a guess.

      • Part of the problem with the Drake “Equation,” is that it is an exercise in determining the mathematical boundaries of an essentially philosophical discussion. It was never intended to provided statistical/mathematical proof of anything, merely provide a mathematical mode of expression for the discussion. As such, it has always been understood that the variables themselves were subject to future definition &/or revision based on observation, and that the unknowns in the equation were ONLY the “known unknowns.” In other words, the equation itself has ALWAYS been subject to future revision, addition, &/or definition, and was never intended to remain static as originally described.

        Anyone trying to use the Drake equation to prove OR disprove the existence of life elsewhere has missed the point of the equation entirely: to show as best as possible in a mathematical form just how little we know about the problem in the first place.

    • Drake’s Equation is missing the denominator. You know the part about the probability of all the required chemical syntheses starting from rocks, to get to life; even dumb life.

      We can’t even do those syntheses in the correct required order and conditions, deliberately even though we know a whole lot about them.

      So that is all going to happen just by accident ??


      • My guess it the Drake Equation will be solved when somebody out there says hi, then N=1 and the rest gets sorted later.

    • The big qualifier is at an advanced state when we get to find them. Is it likely that they are there yes, it is likely that they are advanced when we get to find them ….. I dunno, some of the stars we see are seeing the ‘spectrum’ from earth when the dinosaurs were around.

      • Lenny,

        “Some of the stars we see are seeing the ‘spectrum’ from earth when the dinosaurs were around.”

        From distant galaxies, yes.

        I think that it’s likely once a technological civilization gets past nukes and to the threshold of interstellar travel, it will become widely distributed with no single point of failure (the example, Earth) and persist for a very long time, so I don’t think overlap will be an issue.

  6. These results strongly imply that the interior of this moon could be very complex and potentially extremely surprising. Shooting spectroscopic exams of these super geysers will likely yield important information about the interior. Or at least the crustal region.

  7. “Last week NASA made an announcement about a Monday press release that would announce “something surprising” they found on Europa. The announcement generated a lot of buzz, but then got a bit diluted in the news cycle amid all the Presidential Debate hoopla yesterday.”

    Yeah, this keeps happening. They make an announcement that they’re going to make an announcement, and then when they make the announcement it kind of fizzles. I’ve yet to understand why they don’t skip the “we’re going to make an announcement” part and just make the damned announcement.

  8. Anyone else but me think that this announcement was way over-hyped? Or is it just normal nowadays for science to be hyped?

  9. Hubble keeps on giving. I remember when it first got to orbit and it was discovered the mirror had been ground to the wrong shape, and we wondered if we could even salvage it. And now look. All in all, a magnificent success.

    • @Pop Piasa, unfortunately no, not really. Juno’s instruments are specially designed for its primary mission of observing the Jovian atmosphere & radiation environment. While I suppose they could potentially be re-purposed with a little bit of effort, the biggest obstacle is that Juno’s orbit is designed specifically for its observations of Jupiter from VERY close to the cloud tops, and inside the bulk of the magnetosphere. As such, it would have to drop observing time from its primary mission in order to fulfill its (never intended) secondary mission of observing Europa.

      Since Juno is only expected to survive a limited time in the highly irradiated Jovian neighborhood anyway (in spite of its specially designed orbit), any deviation from that primary mission will result in a loss in planned data which it was specifically designed to gather. Sure makes a planetary science nerd like me wish we had a Cassini-like mission for the Jovian system, though none are currently in the works. In fact, once Cassini de-orbits next year, there will be no continuous science from any of the gas giants of our system, and there are no plans to put any similar craft around those planets currently. To me, this is sad, because our best observations of Uranus & Neptune are from the Voyager probes, and from Hubble: not exactly HD stuff.

      • re Smokey@ 11:41pm

        Yes,NASA’s Juno is just so boring. NASA seemingly has lost it’s will to do something exciting like a dive down to Europa. Just media hype about stuff we already knew…water from Europa.
        Similarly on Mars Curiosity has produced great images and information but the next probe will do just the same. Let’s have Viking v.2…a real life searching lab on the ground there. Not hard to do…I think NASA is afraid that if they don’t find life their funding will be cut…so they don’t design probes to actually search for life…just endless water searching probes. How boring is that! Maybe ESA will step up to the challenge. They certainly did a great job with Rosetta! Likewise Japans JAXA with Hyabasa mission and sample return to a asteroid Itokawa over 10 years ago. These are the real explorers…not afraid of funding cuts.

      • @Alistair Brickell:

        As far as NASA’s hunt for life goes, you may in some portion be correct, but I personally find the Juno mission far from “boring.” We’ve already had some amazing views from that probe, displaying aspects of Jupiter’s atmosphere never before seen (e.g.: ). In addition, we’ll get the first ever detailed observations of the inside of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, and some data regarding the effectiveness of radiation hardening for electronics in such an environment.

        Further, the water finding on Europa was unique and important, NOT because it was water (again, hurrah, whatever), but because the existence of such ocean-fed geysers pushes examining/accessing the sub-surface ocean on Europa out of the Mythbusters “Plausible, but only because we can image how it MIGHT happen, given enough money/time/effort/engineering thrown at the problem in the next thirty years,” and into the “plausible-not-confirmed, but only because we haven’t done it yet!”

        In other words, we now believe we can access that ocean in many respects with technology we have today, rather than having to engineer something ridiculously new & unproven from scratch.

        As for a direct-to-Europa mission, the Europa Clipper is still moving forward, if much more slowly than I would like. Still, it looks to launch around 2022 ( )… making full use of the data gathered beforehand by Juno to adjust the EC’s orbital engineering and radiation hardening, I have no doubt.

  10. TY for the great discussion above, this ole hillbilly helped get going…….is stand by my claim ZERO chance we are the only life in the universe……..the stuff we are made of is scattered all around.

  11. To help clarify the reason this finding is a big deal:

    1) While not a hugely unexpected surprise, it is still an important finding. One of the key tenets of the “Scientific Method” is replicability: in this case, while we’ve had evidence of possible plumes before, we had no independent confirmation of these plumes, nor any hard & fast reason to believe these were the result of an ongoing process. For instance, without independent confirmation the plumes observed earlier could simply have been the result of an impacting object, rather than anything intrinsic to Europa, or they might have been sensory/instrumental artifacts. The new findings seem to confirm that the plumes ARE real, and that they are a recurring feature of the moon itself.

    2) Now that we have confirmation that these plumes are there for sure, and that they are an ongoing phenomenon: “The observation increases the possibility that missions to Europa may be able to sample Europa’s ocean without having to drill through miles of ice.” This is a HUGE deal, given current estimates which suggest that a few tens to over a hundred kilometers of ice normally separate the surface of the moon from its ocean.

    Some in the thread above have submitted that active/ongoing cryo-vulcanism on Europa should produce ring-like features around Jupiter, as like phenomena do in places such as Enceladus (responsible for repopulating the E-Ring of Saturn), but this is not necessarily the case. Europa is a much larger (~3100 km in diameter) & more massive (4.8 x 10^22 kg) object than Enceladus (~500 km and 1.1 x 10^20 kg, respectively), and so the exhaust from these plumes is much more likely to fall back to the surface and re-freeze, or else become a part of the moon’s exosphere than that of the geysers on Enceladus.

    Also, Jupiter’s gravity, its magnetosphere & the gravity of the other Galilean moons make it difficult for any subsequent formation made from this “out-gassing” to survive long-term, let alone be detected (although it would be interesting to know if some portion of Jupiter’s rings might be composed of captured Europan ice/dust). This is why the Hubble was used to confirm the prior findings through direct observations of the moon’s exosphere, rather than using some other method to pick up the remains/exhaust from such phenomena further away from the moon.

  12. We don’t understand what’s causing these plumes, it can’t be explained by any known natural mechanism,, therefore human exploitation of the solar system must be responsible.

  13. I do not have high hopes of finding life on the moons of the gas giants.

    The reason for this is that life did not appear immediately on planet Earth, and the infancy/childhood of planet Earth is very different to the infancy/childhood of the moons of the gas giants.

    So for example, for long was Europa bathed in sunlight before its surface became frozen over? Is Sunlight (UV rays whatever) an important catalyst for the first steps towards life, or creating the environment in which life can develop and take hold?

    Whilst life is abundant here on planet Earth even in extreme and hostile environments, the fact that we cannot create even single cell life shows how very difficult life is to create. The conditions need to be just right and I am far from convinced that given the very different infancy/childhood of the moons of the gas giants that the initial conditions were ever right on those celestial bodies.

    Pity really, because it would be an exciting discovery, but my view is that we are better off exploring Mars.

  14. I often read about Earth being special and people wondering if there’s life out there in space.

    Isn’t Earth itself part of Space? There’s your answer, there IS life in Space and we just happen to be one.

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