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New Evidence for an Alien Ocean

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New Evidence for an Alien Ocean

Fluctuations in the magnetic field surrounding Jupiter's moon Europa are a telltale sign of salty liquid water beneath the moon's icy crust. Europa could harbor the solar system's largest ocean.

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false color image of EuropaAugust 28, 2000 -- NASA researchers have the strongest evidence yet that one of Jupiter's most mysterious moons hides a fermenting ocean of water beneath its icy coat. This evidence comes from magnetic readings by NASA's Galileo spacecraft, reported in the Friday, August 25, edition of the journal Science.

Europa, the fourth largest satellite of Jupiter, has long been suspected of harboring vast quantities of water. Because life as we know it requires water, this makes the moon a prime target in the search for exobiology, or life beyond Earth.

Above: This false color Galileo image of Europa highlights color differences in the moon's predominantly water-ice crust.

"The direction that a magnetic compass on Europa would point to flips around in a way that's best explained by the presence of an electrically conducting liquid, such as saltwater beneath the ice," explained Dr. Margaret Kivelson, one of five co-authors at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"We have good reason to believe that the surface layers of Europa are made up of water that is either frozen or liquid," Kivelson said, pointing out that earlier gravity measurements show a low density, such as water's, for the moon's outer layers. "But ice is not a good conductor, and therefore we infer that the conductor may be a liquid ocean."

see captionGalileo has flown near Europa frequently since the spacecraft began orbiting Jupiter in December 1995. Pictures from those flybys show patterns that scientists see as evidence of a hidden ocean. In some, rafts of ice appear to have shifted position by floating on fluid below. In others, fluid appears to have risen to the surface and frozen there.

Left: Fragmented chunks of ice on Europa, similar in appearance to those seen in Earth polar seas during a springtime thaw. [more information]

However, those features could be explained by a past ocean that has subsequently frozen solid, said Galileo's project scientist, Dr. Torrence Johnson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "This magnetometer data is the only indication we have that there's an ocean there now, rather than in the geological past," Johnson said.

Johnson said the case for liquid water on Europa is still not clinched. "The evidence is still indirect and requires several steps of inference to get to the conclusion that there really is a salty ocean," he said. "A definitive answer could come from precise measurements of gravity and altitude to check for the effects of tides."

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NASA is planning a Europa Orbiter mission to carry instruments capable of providing that information. Magnetic evidence for an ocean is possible because Europa orbits within the magnetic field of Jupiter. That field induces electric currents that flow through a conducting layer near Europa's surface. The currents create a secondary magnetic field at Europa that the magnetometer on Galileo is able to detect.

Key evidence that the magnetic readings near Europa result from this type of secondary effect, implying a saltwater layer, relies on timing. The direction of Jupiter's magnetic field at Europa reverses predictably as the moon's position within the field changes. During Galileo's flyby in January, the direction of Jupiter's field at Europa was the opposite of what it had been during earlier passes in 1996 and 1998. Kivelson's team predicted how that would change the direction of Europa's magnetic polarity if Europa has a saltwater layer.

Galileo's measurements matched their prediction.

see caption"It makes a very strong case that the source of the magnetic signature is a conducting layer near the surface," Kivelson said.

Galileo's magnetometer is also expected to play an important role this fall and winter in joint studies of Jupiter while NASA's Saturn-bound Cassini spacecraft passes near the giant planet. Galileo will be inside Jupiter's magnetic field while Cassini is just outside it. Scientists plan to take advantage of that positioning to learn more about how the solar wind affects the giant planet's magnetic field.

Left: Two models consistent with images of Europa's surface include a subsurface layer of liquid water or perhaps warmer, convecting ice. Image credit: JPL and the SETI Institute.

Galileo completed its original mission nearly three years ago, but has been given a three-year extension. It has survived three times the amount of radiation it was designed to endure.

Kivelson's UCLA co-authors are Drs. Krishan Khurana, Christopher Russell, Martin Volwerk, Raymond Walker, and Christopher Zimmer. The Galileo mission is managed for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC, by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Web Links

Galileo Home Page - from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Divining Water on Europa -- Sept 9, 1999, Science@NASA feature story


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