Juno spacecraft reveals possible plume activity on Europa

Comparison of the ocean world of Jupiter's moon Europa and our Earth
Comparison of the ocean world of Jupiter’s moon Europa and our Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Two new scientific papers based on NASA’s Juno spacecraft data revealed that Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is more active than previously thought.

Europa is the fourth largest moon of Jupiter after Ganymede, Callisto, and Io. Europa possesses a global subsurface ocean beneath its icy shell, making it a prime target to search for extraterrestrial life.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, made its closest flyby of Europa on September 29, 2022.

During its closest flyby, it came within 220 miles (355 kilometers) of the moon’s frozen surface and took a total of five images of Jupiter’s moon Europa. These images revealed recent activities on Europa’s surface.

JunoCam captured Jupiter's icy moon Europa on September 29, 2022
JunoCam captured Jupiter’s icy moon Europa on September 29, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)

JunoCam, the visible-light camera aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft, reveals a sharp view of Europa’s icy shell and supports the theory that Europa’s outer ice shell is essentially free-floating and moves. A theory called true polar wander suggests that the icy crust at the north and south poles of Jupiter’s moon Europa is not where it used to be. 

The Stellar Reference Unit (SRU) of the Juno spacecraft revealed a region with possible plume activity on Europa
The Stellar Reference Unit (SRU) of the Juno spacecraft revealed a region with possible plume activity on Europa. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI)

The Stellar Reference Unit (SRU) aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft reveals a black-and-white image of Europa’s surface. This image shows a region of a double ridge running east-west (blue box) with possible plum activity and a young 37 km by 67 km chaos feature called “the Platypus,” (orange box) which shows ice shell disruption where the salty water of the subsurface ocean may have recently bubbled to the surface.

“These features hint at present-day surface activity and the presence of subsurface liquid water on Europa,” said Heidi Becker, lead co-investigator for the SRU at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

These features can be a prime target for upcoming NASA’s Europa Clipper mission and ESA’s Juice mission.

Currently, NASA’s Juno spacecraft is on its extended mission, and it is planned to continue its investigation of the solar system’s largest planet through September 2025.

NASA’s Europa Clipper mission is scheduled to launch on October 10, 2024, and arrive at Jupiter in April 2030. ESA’s Juice mission (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) was launched on April 14, 2023, and will arrive at Jupiter in July 2031.

Recently, two scientific papers have been published on the above findings. These are:

Juno’s JunoCam Images of Europa

A Complex Region of Europa’s Surface With Hints of Recent Activity Revealed by Juno’s Stellar Reference Unit

Related article: Juno spacecraft spots Jupiter’s tiny moon Amalthea 

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Ashim Chandra Sarkar founded Space & Telescope in 2022. He holds a M.Sc. in physics and has five years of research experience in optical astronomy. His passion for astronomy inspired him to open this website. He is responsible for the editorial vision of spaceandtelescope.com.

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