Baltimore's Hubble Space Telescope center was part of a key discovery on one of Jupiter's moons - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Apr. 14, 2017 8:44 am

Baltimore’s Hubble Space Telescope center was part of a key discovery on one of Jupiter’s moons

An astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute led the discovery of a plume on Europa that has NASA intrigued as it searches for life.

A tale of two plumes.

(Image courtesy of Space Telescope Science Institute)

For the second time this year, astronomers in Baltimore were involved in a big discovery that may be a sign of conditions that could support life in a world that’s not our own.

A team led by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s William Sparks is zeroing in on a key spot on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Located on Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus, STScI runs science operations for the Hubble Space Telescope.

For a second time in two years, the Hubble picked up a potential plume of water vapor erupting from the moon’s icy surface, according to STScI. This one was observed 62 miles above the moon’s surface.

The plume appears to be in a place that’s a few degrees warmer than the surrounding area, which the astronomers believe is significant. They’re not exactly sure what might be causing it to warm up, but they have a couple ideas: Water is pushing up from below, or water is falling from the plume as a mist warms up the surface.

The discovery wasn’t the headliner of the day, however. That belonged to an observation from the team operating the spacecraft Cassini, which found that a form of chemical energy that could provide food for life on an icy Saturn moon, Enceladus. It was Cassini’s “biggest revelation yet.”

But it’s important to the search for life, as NASA said plumes were also discovered on Enceladus. The salty ocean beneath Europa’s icy crust has long been thought as a potential home to life in our solar system, and NASA is preparing a new mission to send a satellite called the Europa Clipper toward the moon in the next decade.

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“If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them,” Jim Green, NASA Director of Planetary Science, said in a statement.

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