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This means that tidal acceleration could be driving water spouting - by opening cracks in the surface ice, the researchers propose. The team is not yet sure whether these fissures go all the way down to the liquid water beneath the moon's icy crust, or whether some other mechanism is bringing the vapour to the surface.
The researchers also want to investigate whether the plumes are similar to those seen on Saturn's moon Enceladus, where high-pressure vapour emissions escape from very narrow cracks on the body's surface. "We have a lot of questions about how this works," said Dr Retherford. "How thick is the ice crust? Are there lakes and ponds embedded within the layers of the ice? Do these cracks go down really deep, do they really touch the liquid water down below?
Images by the Hubble Space Telescope show surpluses of hydrogen and oxygen in the moon's southern hemisphere, say astronomers writing in Science journal. If confirmed as water vapour plumes, it raises hopes that Europa's underground ocean can be accessed from its surface.
Future missions could probe these seas for signs of life. Nasa's planetary science chief Dr James Green told BBC News: "The presence of the water has led scientists to speculate that the Europa we know today harbours life. "The plumes are incredibly exciting if they are there - they are bringing up material from the ocean. Perhaps there are organic molecules lying there on the surface of Europa."
The next realistic opportunity to study the jets up close is therefore the European Space Agency's Juice mission.
Due to launch to the Jovian system in 2022, the satellite will make two close flybys of the ice-encrusted moon in the 2030s. With luck, its instrumentation will get close enough to directly sample the plumes.
Signatures of water (blue) detected by Hubble are overlayed on an image of Europa