A-1 - Encouraged by What You Read?

Earlier this week, news of water plumes on Jupiter’s moon Europa splashed across news headlines. The excitement about the discovery was not the existence of water, but the likely source of the water.

What They Discovered

Using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), astronomers observed Europa as it passed in front of Jupiter. As the moon begins to transit, any atmosphere it has will block some of the light coming from Jupiter. (Scientists also use this technique to look for atmospheres on exoplanets.) Over the past 15 months, the research team observed 10 transits of Jupiter by Europa. During three of these transits, the data indicated the presence of finger-like projections extending from the surface of Europa, consistent with plumes of water erupting from the surface of the moon.

Photo Composite of Suspected Water Plumes on Europa (Annotated)
Image: Photo Composite of Suspected Water Plumes on Europa 
Credit: NASA/HubbleSite

The plumes shoot more than 100 miles toward space before falling back onto the moon’s surface. Although more data is required to confirm the presence of the plumes, similar results were published in 2014 from a different group using a different technique. The amount of material in the current plumes is consistent with previous findings.

The Significance of the Discovery

Water vapor plumes are not a new thing. Observations of Saturn’s moon Enceladus almost a decade ago found such plumes. Studies of the mechanism for producing the plumes on Enceladus point to a source of gas rather than liquid water. According to scientific consensus, Europa hosts a liquid water ocean roughly 60 miles deep—although it sits under 10–20 miles of solid ice. If the plumes contain water from the subsurface ocean, they provide a great opportunity to test the popular idea that life forms where a minimal set of conditions is met.

The variability of the plumes makes it difficult to predict their presence. However, NASA currently has a mission scheduled for launch in 2022 that will make multiple flybys of Europa. If the plumes occur during one of the flybys, the mission could sample the material and look for evidence of life’s building blocks (organic molecules) or possibly life itself. Even without sampling the plumes, instruments could analyze the surface where the water from the plumes eventually settle. In the absence of these plumes, the only alternative to investigating the subsurface ocean is an expensive mission capable of drilling through miles of solid ice!

The Bigger Picture

The last couple of decades brought substantial evidence that liquid water exists (or has in the past) on many solar system bodies such as Venus, Enceladus, Europa, and the asteroid Vesta. (Mars even experienced tsunamis.) In one sense, such finds are not surprising since water is the third most abundant molecule in the universe (behind two forms of molecular hydrogen). The real question centers on whether bodies of liquid water provide everything life requires to start and survive. Reasons to Believe contends that life requires far more than liquid water (and a few other minimal conditions). The solar system contains other environments with liquid water that we can access with relative ease (in comparison to planets orbiting distant stars). This access provides the opportunity to test if life forms easily or if the presence of life on Earth points to the work of a Creator.

Subjects: Requirements for Life, Water

Check o ut more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

About The Author

Jeff Zweerink

Since my earliest memories, science and the Christian faith have featured prominently in my life - but I struggled when my scientific studies seemed to collide with my early biblical training. My first contact with RTB came when I heard Hugh Ross speak at Iowa State University. It was the first time I realized it was possible to do professional work incorporating both my love of science and my desire to serve God. I knew RTB's ministry was something I was called to be a part of. While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. They operate by the same principles and are committed to discovering foundational truths. My passion at RTB is helping Christians see how powerful a tool science is to declare God's glory and helping scientists understand how the established scientific discoveries demonstrate the legitimacy and rationality of the Christian faith. While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Jeff Zweerink thought he would follow in his father's footsteps as a chemistry professor until a high school teacher piqued his interest in physics. Jeff pursued a BS in physics and a PhD in astrophysics at Iowa State University (ISU), where he focused his study on gamma rays - messengers from distant black holes and neutron stars. Upon completing his education, Jeff taught at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. Postdoctoral research took him to the West Coast, to the University of California, Riverside, and eventually to a research faculty position at UCLA. He has conducted research using STACEE and VERITAS gamma-ray telescopes, and currently works on GAPS, a balloon experiment seeking to detect dark matter. A Christian from childhood, Jeff desired to understand how the worlds of science and Scripture integrate. He struggled when his scientific studies seemed to collide with his early biblical training. While an undergrad at ISU, Jeff heard Hugh Ross speak and learned of Reasons to Believe (RTB) and its ministry of reconciliation - tearing down the presumed barriers between science and faith and introducing people to their personal Creator. Jeff knew this was something he was called to be a part of. Today, as a research scholar at RTB, Jeff speaks at churches, youth groups, universities, and professional groups around the country, encouraging people to consider the truth of Scripture and how it connects with the evidence of science. His involvement with RTB grows from an enthusiasm for helping others bridge the perceived science-faith gap. He seeks to assist others in avoiding the difficulties he experienced. Jeff is author of Who's Afraid of the Multiverse? and coauthor of more than 30 journal articles, as well as numerous conference proceedings. He still serves part-time on the physics and astronomy research faculty at UCLA. He directs RTB's online learning programs, Reasons Institute and Reasons Academy, and also contributes to the ministry's podcasts and daily blog, Today's New Reason to Believe. When he isn’t participating in science-faith apologetics Jeff enjoys fishing, camping, and working on home improvement projects. An enthusiastic sports fan, he coaches his children's teams and challenges his RTB colleagues in fantasy football. He roots for the Kansas City Chiefs and for NASCAR's Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, live in Southern California with their five children.

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