Searches for Plumes and Ongoing Geologic Activity on Europa from Galileo and Other Spacecraft

Friday, 19 December 2014: 11:35 AM
Cynthia B Phillips, SETI Institute Mountain View, Mountain View, CA, United States
The recent discovery of an apparent plume erupting from Europa’s surface using data from the Hubble Space Telescope (Roth et al. 2014) has prompted renewed interest in the possibility of recent or ongoing geologic activity on Europa. Here we summarize previous searches for plumes and changes on Europa’s surface, and make recommendations for future efforts.

During the period of time in which the Galileo spacecraft was in orbit in the Jupiter system, we made a number of comparisons with observations taken 20 years earlier by the Voyager spacecraft to look for surface changes (Phillips et al. 2000). We found no changes which were visible on Europa’s surface. These comparisons, however, were necessarily limited by the low resolution of the Voyager images, which had a maximum resolution of about 2 km/pixel.

We also used Galileo spacecraft data to search for plumes of material being ejected from Europa’s surface. A 30-image observation was taken in 1999 to observe the limb and the dark sky just off the limb in a search for active plumes, but no plumes were observed (Phillips et al. 2000). However, Hoppa et al (1999) suggested that this image sequence occurred under unfavorable tidal stress conditions. Plume searches were also performed in eclipse images, but again no plumes were detected.

More recently, we compared global-scale images of Europa taken in 2007 by the New Horizons spacecraft during its Jupiter flyby en route to Pluto (Bramson et al. 2011). After a careful search that included the iterative coregistration and ratioing techniques developed by Phillips et al. (2000), again, no changes were found on Europa’s surface.

If the recent Roth et al. (2014) suggestions of an active plume on Europa prove to be correct, we infer that one of two possibilities must be the case. Either 1) the plume is a recent event and was not active before the 2007 New Horizons flyby; or 2) the plume is intermittent and low-density, consisting primarily of gas and not dust, and therefore results in little to no detectable surface deposits on Europa.

References: Roth, L. et al. Science 343, 171-174, 2014.

Phillips, C. B., et al. JGR 105, 22579-22598, 2000.

Hoppa, G., et al. Icarus 141, 287-298, 1999.

Bramson, A. M., et al. LPSC 42, Abs. 1606, 2011.