The news from Europa just keeps getting better and better. Sure, the discovery that Europa’s water vapor plumes may be coming from water trapped in the crust rather than a Super Stupendous Secret Ocean is a bit of a setback. While it doesn’t negate the presence of the Secret Ocean, it does mean that we can’t necessarily rely on the plumes to give us an idea of how habitable Europa’s Secret Ocean is. But still — water! We all like water. After all, you can’t cook a package of Maruchan Ramen without it.
The more exciting (some may even say illuminating) news from Europa is that it might glow in the dark. Beautiful, sexy Europa, not satisfied with having water, possibly supporting life, and having an awesome view of Jupiter, decided it also needs to glow in the dark. Is the glowing caused by the massive amounts of radiation found on Europa’s surface that make living there impossible? Yes. More importantly, is it going to make the inside of my eventual house on Europa look really cool? Also yes.
The fact that Europa’s night-side has an otherworldly, glowing ambience is not the only good news from this discovery. In fact, the good news is endless! One: the glow changes colors! It could be green (my favorite color, as it so happens), blue, or white depending on which salty compounds are involved in the glow du jour. This is going to make my gothic-themed parties on Europa a real blast. Two: it could also allow scientists to identify compounds found on Europa, which can further help them along in determining whether or not Europa really could support life. That said, I am not a scientist, so I think we can all agree that the spooky atmosphere at my future Europaean(?) parties is the real win here. My beloved Europa, you really shouldn’t have.
Of course, with every new discovery comes a whole slew of new questions, none of which will be answered until the Europa Clipper finally arrives in the Jovian system. It currently has a launch date of 2025, though it looks like it will be ready to go by 2023. How long it takes to get there will be dependent on which rocket NASA chooses to use, but we should be getting some answers from the Clipper within the decade. In the grand scheme of eternity, nine or so years isn’t a terribly long time to wait. But if you’re an astronomer, space enthusiast, or librarian planning to pack up her Subaru and move to Europa with her cat any day now (It glows in the dark!), it seems a very long time indeed.
In case you’re wondering, Europe’s contribution to Jovian exploration, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (aka JUICE), is scheduled to do its first Europa flyby in October 2030, making the wait time about the same as that of the Europa Clipper. That said, JUICE’s main focus is Ganymede (lame), meaning that the Clipper is still Europa enthusiasts’ main focus. Also, it must be said that NASA does have better graphic designers.
And so we wait. We wait to see what secrets the Europa Clipper will share with us, and what other possibilities may come to light in the meantime. Can Europa support life? Is life already there? When will I be able to buy a glow in the dark Europa t-shirt? Not knowing the answers to these questions can be trying, but true progress requires time and patience. For that reason, I, along with many scientists, will continue to wait to find out just how lit my parties on Europa will be.