Transient Water Vapor at Europa’s South Pole

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Science  10 Jan 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6167, pp. 171-174
DOI: 10.1126/science.1247051

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Europa's Plumes

Jupiter's moon Europa has a subsurface ocean and a relatively young icy surface. Roth et al. (p. 171, published online 12 December 2013; see the Perspective by Spencer) analyzed spectral images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope that show ultraviolet emissions from the moon's atmosphere, and report a statistically significant emission signal extending above the satellite's southern hemisphere. This emission is consistent with two 200-km-high plumes of water vapor. Tidal stresses likely play a role in opening and closing fractures at the surface.


In November and December 2012, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imaged Europa’s ultraviolet emissions in the search for vapor plume activity. We report statistically significant coincident surpluses of hydrogen Lyman-α and oxygen OI 130.4-nanometer emissions above the southern hemisphere in December 2012. These emissions were persistently found in the same area over the 7 hours of the observation, suggesting atmospheric inhomogeneity; they are consistent with two 200-km-high plumes of water vapor with line-of-sight column densities of about 1020 per square meter. Nondetection in November 2012 and in previous HST images from 1999 suggests varying plume activity that might depend on changing surface stresses based on Europa’s orbital phases. The plume was present when Europa was near apocenter and was not detected close to its pericenter, in agreement with tidal modeling predictions.

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