Posts Tagged ‘Europa’

Earlier this week it was announced that NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope had observed evidence for water geysers shooting from the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s larger moons. Here is a link to NASA’s press release. I was on BBC TV talking briefly about this on Tuesday (27 September), the day after NASA’s announcement.


NASA has announced that the Hubble Space Telescope has observed water geysers emanating from the south pole of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

In fact, this announcement was additional evidence to add to a finding which had first been announced in 2013. In December 2012, astronomers used a spectroscope on Hubble to look in ultraviolet wavelengths at Europa. They found auroral activity near the moon’s south pole, and upon analysis of the spectrum of the UV emission from this auroral activity they found the spectral signatures of hydrogen and oxygen, the constituents of water.

Those 2012 observations have since been followed up using a different method. This time astronomers have observed how the Sun’s light, which is reflected from Jupiter, is affected as it passes Europa. As Europa transited in front of its parent planet, astronomers looked for signs of absorption of this light near the limb of the moon, which would be due to gases associated with Europa. Such a technique can, for example, be used to find and study the atmosphere of an extra-solar planet as it passes in front of its parent star.

Whilst not finding any evidence that Europa has an atmosphere, what the team found was that absorption features were seen near the moon’s south pole. When they calculated the amount and extent of material required to produce these absorption features they found that their results were consistent with the 2012 finding. They calculate that water jets are spewing out from the surface of Europa and erupting to a height of about 160 km from the moon’s surface.

We have had evidence since the Voyager mission in the 1980s that Europa has an ocean of water below its icy surface. This evidence was further enhanced during the Galileo mission in the 1990s. Where there is water there may be life, so it is possible that Europa’s ocean is teeming with microbial life. To find out, we need to directly study the water in this sub-surface ocean.

Unfortunately, due to the thickness of the icy crust covering its ocean, studying this water directly poses a huge challenge. We currently don’t have the capability to drill through such a large thickness of ice, although it is certainly something we would hope to do in the future. This discovery of water jets provides a much easier way to sample the water directly, and so it is quite feasible that NASA and/or ESA could send a probe to fly through the jet, take a sample of the water, and analyse it to see whether there are any signs of microbial life. This is very exciting, and is why this discovery of water geysers erupting on Europa is so important.

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Continuing my blogs on the five top facts about Jupiter which were posted as a tweet during my appearance on BBC Radio 5’s morning show a few weeks ago, at number 4 in my list was –

It [Jupiter] has more than 60 moons, four of which were discovered by Galileo in 1610

The four Galilean moons were the first moons to be discovered orbiting another planet, back in January 1610 when Galileo first turned his newly-fashioned telescope to look at Jupiter. Initially he thought the four bright dots he could see near Jupiter were background stars, but as he observed Jupiter over a period of several weeks he saw that not only did these bright dots follow Jupiter as Jupiter moved against the background stars, but they appeared to “dance” around it. He realised quite quickly that he was seeing moons orbiting another planet.

The actual sketches that Galileo made in January 1610 in his notebook of the moons of Jupiter

The actual sketches that Galileo made in January 1610 in his notebook of the moons of Jupiter

The four Galilean moons are called (in order of distance from Jupiter) Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The usual pneumonic for remembering this is I Eat Green Carrots, or In Every Good Class 🙂 I will do a series of blogs about each of these moons, as each one is fascinating and have been studied in detail by the Galileo space probe in the 1990s. But, one thing I will mention here is that you can see this four moons with just a pair of binoculars or a low powered telescope, you do not need any highly sophisticated equipment. If you are trying to see them with binoculars then the trick is to steady your elbows on something like a wall or the roof of a car, and lean against something to reduce any wobbling.

How Jupiter appears through a small telescope. On a good night with steady air the bands should be visible, and the Galilean moons are easy to spot.

How Jupiter appears through a small telescope. On a good night with steady air the bands should be visible, and the Galilean moons are easy to spot.

Another thing I will mention in this blog is that Io only takes about 2 days to orbit Jupiter, and so in the matter of just a few hours you can see a change in its position. If you look at Jupiter at e.g. 8pm and then again at e.g. 2am, or even midnight, you will see that Io has moved. The best way to know which moons are where is to go online and do a search for “jupiter moons positions” or something similar, and you should be able to find a chart which shows which moons are where (east of west of Jupiter, or behind or in front of it) on which nights.

Jupiter has many other moons, and more are being discovered, but they are all tiny compared to the Galilean moons. The Galilean moons and Jupiter form what is, in many ways, a mini Solar System, and I will talk more about that when discuss Io and Europa in more detail in future blogs.

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Back in November (2011), I wrote a blog on the planets which would be visible over the winter months. I thought it was about time, being over a week into the official summer, that I wrote a blog about the planets visible over the summer months this summer (2012). Unfortunately, there aren’t many planets visible this summer, Saturn and Mars is your lot.

This summer, Mars is to the Western side of the constellation Virgo, and is transiting at the moment (in early July) at 18:24. This means that, by the time it gets dark, which in Wales is not before 21:30 this time of year, Mars is quite far over to the West and on its way down in the sky. On the 3rd of March, Mars was at opposition, which means the Earth was at its closest to it. As a consequence, not only is Mars quite low (25 degrees above the horizon) by the time it gets dark, but it is also not very close to us. These two things combined mean Mars will be quite an unspectacular sight through a telescope.

Mars through a small telescope. If you are very lucky, you may see signs of the polar caps.

The other planet visible this summer is Saturn. Saturn is transiting at the moment (early July) at 19:55, so is reasonably high (30 degrees) in the sky after it has got dark. It is also to be found in the constellation Virgo, but over towards the constellation’s Eastern end, just to the North of the constellation’s brightest star Spica.

Saturn and Titan through a small telescope. Even with quite a small telescope, you should be able to see the rings and Titan quite easily.

Seeing Saturn for myself never ceases to excite me. Even through quite a small telescope one can clearly see the rings, and usually Saturn’s brightest moon Titan. If you want to see either Mars or Saturn this summer, then you really need to do so over the next few weeks, as by August they really will be setting too early to be able to see at all.

Although there aren’t too many planetary highlights this summer, there is still a lot to see in the Summer sky. One of the easiest things to find is the summer triangle, which is an asterism made up of Vega, Deneb and Altair (the brightest stars in the constellations Lyra, Cygnus and Acquila respectively).

The Summer Triangle, which is made up of the stars Vega, Deneb and Altair.

One of the other hightlights of the summer sky is the Ring Nebula, Messier 57. It is, in fact, what is called a Planetary Nebula. These are nothing to do with planets, but are in fact dying stars. Their name comes from the fact that, through 17th Century telescopes, they resembled the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn.

A planetary nebula is an object where the central star has thrown off its outer layers, and the remaining core (which we call a White Dwarf), is the remains of the once active star. The gases glow due to the electrons in the gas being excited by the energetic ultra violet light coming from the white dwarf. The white dwarf at the centre of the Ring Nebula is quite clearly visible through a medium-sized telescope.

The constellation Lyra (the harp), showing the location of Messier 57, the Ring Nebula

Messier 57, the Ring Nebula, one of the best planetary nebulae in the sky.

Our own Sun will end its life as a planetary nebula and white dwarf, as it is not massive enough to become e.g. a neutron star or a black hole. For a brief period (about 50,000 years), what hydrogen which the Sun will throw off during its asymptotic giant branch phase will glow in the sky, before fading from view as the white dwarf remains of the Sun slowly cools over time.


I am going to be on BBC radio this Friday (13th of July 2012) talking about the summer sky. In preparing for this interview I realised that Jupiter is, of course, visible in the morning sky. It is to be found in the constellation Taurus, which is itself an easy constellation to find with the bright star Aldebaran in it. Jupiter is currently (mid July) rising at 02:45, so over the next few months is actually the best planet to see, by mid-August it will be rising about 00:45 and my mid-September by about 22:45.

Jupiter is in Taurus at the moment, just to the north of the bright red star Aldebaran, and to the East of Capella, “the Shepherd’s star”, which is in the constellation Auriga.

Jupiter is well worth looking at in a telescope. As I commented in my blog about the 2011/12 Winter sky, one can nearly always see the Galilean moons of Jupiter through a small telescope, and if one is lucky one can also see the bands and the great red spot. So, if you are out looking at the sky over the summer, don’t forget to stay up late (or get up early) to catch a glimpse of Jupiter.

Venus is in the same constellation. It is only some 5 weeks ago that Venus transited the Sun, but already it has moved to the West of the Sun in the sky so that it is now rising before it. Venus will appear as a large crescent at the moment, as it is on the near side to us in its orbit.

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