Europa is the fourth largest of Jupiter's moons. Like Io, Callisto and Ganymede, it was discovered by Galileo and the German astronomer Simon Marius in 1610.

Europa's icy surface is relatively smooth and has distinctive linear ridges, cracks and flows. Many scientists believe that liquid water oceans may lie beneath this outer ice layer, making Europa a place where life could exist.

Photo: Europa taken by the Galileo probe (NASA)

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About Europa

Jupiter's smooth moon may have subsurface oceans.

About Europa

Europa i/jʊˈroʊpə/ (Jupiter II), is the sixth-closest moon of the planet Jupiter, and the smallest of its four Galilean satellites, but still the sixth-largest moon in the Solar System. Europa was discovered in 1610 by Galileo Galilei and possibly independently by Simon Marius around the same time. Progressively better observations of Europa have occurred over the centuries by Earth-bound telescopes, and by space probe flybys starting in the 1970s.

Slightly smaller than the Moon, Europa is primarily made of silicate rock and probably has an iron core. It has a tenuous atmosphere composed primarily of oxygen. Its surface is composed of water ice and is one of the smoothest in the Solar System. This surface is striated by cracks and streaks, whereas craters are relatively rare. The apparent youth and smoothness of the surface have led to the hypothesis that a water ocean exists beneath it, which could conceivably serve as an abode for extraterrestrial life. This hypothesis proposes that heat from tidal flexing causes the ocean to remain liquid and drives geological activity similar to plate tectonics. On 8 September 2014, NASA reported finding evidence confirming earlier reports of plate tectonics in Europa's thick ice shell - the first sign of such geological activity on another world other than Earth.

In December 2013, NASA reported the detection of "clay-like minerals" (specifically, phyllosilicates), often associated with "organic material" on the icy crust of Europa. In addition, NASA announced, based on studies with the Hubble Space Telescope, that water vapor plumes were detected on Europa and were similar to water vapor plumes detected on Enceladus, moon of Saturn.

The Galileo mission, launched in 1989, provided the bulk of current data on Europa. No spacecraft has yet landed on Europa, but its intriguing characteristics have led to several ambitious exploration proposals. The European Space Agency's Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) is a mission to Europa that is due to launch in 2022. NASA is planning a robotic mission that would be launched in the "mid-2020s".

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