The shores of Titan

The shores of Titan

Europa, the new spa destination of the solar system

Clays and geysers! All we need is a regular flight and Europa will become a spa destination to rival Iceland.

It’s been an exciting week for me at the annual American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. There have been announcements left-right and centre of fascinating insights into our solar system. We’ve seen reports of the first radiometric dating of a rock on another planet, detecting of the coldest place on Earth and now two stories that have upped Europa on the spa destination list.

An artist’s impression of the possible explosion resulting from a high-speed collision between a space rock and Jupiter’s moon Europa. NASA/JPL-Caltech

First it was clays. Obviously motivated by my post highlighting that clays had become sexy science again (tongue in cheek), NASA scientist have taken their fits to the data from Galileo again and deduced that… there are CLAYS ON Europa. This fantastic news for the Europan face mask industry, came from sifting through data from the much-lauded Galileo mission. The clays (or the NASA-beloved word “phyllosillicates”) were found in a 25 km ring close to an impact crater. The material is thought to be a “splash back” effect from a comet or asteroid 1700 meters in diameter.

Then earlier today came the big news – evidence from the Hubble space telescope that Europa can spout plumes of water. This is indeed big news. This would place Europa in a rather elite club of geologically active bodies in our solar system with ourselves on Earth, Saturn’s moon Encleadus and Europa’s sister moon Io being the only other members. Thought to only last seven hours at a time, evidence for the plume was captured by Hubble in October 2012. Travelling at over 700 meters per second, the plume was detected from the breakdown of water to oxygen and hydrogen.

Plumes of water vapour could arrise from cracks on Europa only cm’s thick NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

It’s pretty clear that both of these exciting stories are only strengthening the case to get back out there. At the moment funding to icy moons science from NASA has largely dwindled, and the only bright spot on the horizon is ESA’s JUICE mission. We’ve got to wait to 2030 till that spacecraft makes it out there – and you really have to wonder what we’ll find before then. And right now for me, there’s still a day and a half of the San Francisco AGU conference still to go, I wonder what I’ll hear about tomorrow!