NASA has fresh hope of finding signs of alien life

NASA has fresh hope of finding signs of alien life

Last Wednesday, Culberson's subcommittee marked up the FY2019 CJS bill, which funds NASA, and he excitedly told his appropriations committee colleagues - and therefore the public - about the new findings at the markup.

If Galileo already flew within the immediate vicinity of the jets without even trying, NASA could certainly achieve the same feat with a new probe created to specifically to sample the icy plumes in the hunt for microbial life or some other organic proof that something is alive in Europa's depths.

There are better tools now, better computational techniques, better computing.

Jia was inspired by the Hubble detections to look back at the Galileo flyby data. After all, scientists have now spotted possible plume activity in the same area of Europa multiple times over a 19-year span.

The study, led by Xianzhe Jia, of the University of MI, seems to confirm an idea that had already arisen from observations of the Hubble Space Telescope taken in 2012.

The space agency is priming two probes, including one that will land on its surface, to explore the distant moon in detail within the next decade, the agency says.

At the time the blip in the data was unexplained but it is now believed it was a water plume.

Almost 15 years have passed since NASA sent its Galileo spacecraft flying into Jupiter's outer atmosphere to die-eliminating the possibility of contaminating nearby Jovian moons with any traces of Earth bacteria. This image is from NASA, ESA, and K. Retherford.

As Kaplan reports, the team ran the data through a complex modeling system of Europa's plumes.

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"One of the locations she mentioned rang a bell".

"On one particular pass, the spacecraft came very, very close to the surface of Europa, and it was on that pass that we saw signatures that we never really understood", she said at a news conference Monday.

The Galileo data are consistent with earlier observations by the Hubble Space Telescope that captured signs of presumed plumes at the limits of detectability. The team, led by Xianzhe Jia, zeroed in one particular flyby of Europa on December 16th, 1997 in which the spacecraft was just 206 km (128 miles) above the moon's surface.

Unusual readings detected by the spacecraft's magnetometer and an instrument that detects charged particles (a Plasma Wave Spectrometer) on that day nearly 21 years ago were set aside as something that simply was not understood according to Margaret Kivelson, a space physicist at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). As it hurtled past, instruments onboard the probe detected a brief but dramatic twist in the magnetic field and a sudden, rapid increase in the density of plasma, or ionised gas, the spacecraft was flying through. They also didn't have the computing power to analyze the numbers. That's in contrast to Enceladus, where a spacecraft was still in the neighborhood and able to gather more information when the moon's plumes were first detected.

"There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa", Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist at JPL, said in a statement. It's targeted to be launched in space by June 2022. He wants NASA to send not only Clipper, which will orbit Jupiter and made 44 flybys of Europa, but also a lander. In fact, according to NASA, if the plumes are indeed spewing from the moon, the orbiter might sample frozen liquid as well as dust particles. The mission team is gearing up now to look at potential orbital paths, and the new research will play into those discussions.

"If plumes exist, and we can directly sample what's coming from the interior of Europa, then we can more easily get at whether Europa has the ingredients for life", Pappalardo continues.

That's what the mission is after.

New science, mined from the archives.

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