Scientists' consensus is that a layer of liquid water exists beneath Europa's surface, and that heat from tidal flexing allows the subsurface ocean to remain liquid.
Europa's surface temperature averages about 110 K (−160 °C; −260 °F) at the equator and only 50 K (−220 °C; −370 °F) at the poles, keeping Europa's icy crust as hard as granite. The first hints of a subsurface ocean came from theoretical considerations of tidal heating (a consequence of Europa's slightly eccentric orbit and orbital resonance with the other Galilean moons). Galileo imaging team members argue for the existence of a subsurface ocean from analysis of Voyager and Galileo images.
The most dramatic example is "chaos terrain", a common feature on Europa's surface that some interpret as a region where the subsurface ocean has melted through the icy crust.
The thin-ice model suggests that Europa's ice shell may be only a few kilometers thick. However, most planetary scientists conclude that this model considers only those topmost layers of Europa's crust that behave elastically when affected by Jupiter's tides.
The Hubble Space Telescope acquired an image of Europa in 2012 that was interpreted to be a plume of water vapour erupting from near its south pole The image suggests the plume may be 200 km (120 mi) high, or more than 20 times the height of Mt. Everest.
So far, there is no evidence that life exists on Europa, but Europa has emerged as one of the most likely locations in the Solar System for potential habitability. Life could exist in its under-ice ocean, perhaps in an environment similar to Earth's deep-ocean hydrothermal vents. Even if Europa lacks volcanic hydrothermal activity, a 2016 NASA study found that Earth-like levels of hydrogen and oxygen could be produced through processes related to serpentinization and ice-derived oxidants, which do not directly involve volcanism.
In 2015, scientists announced that salt from a subsurface ocean may likely be coating some geological features on Europa, suggesting that the ocean is interacting with the seafloor. This may be important in determining if Europa could be habitable. The likely presence of liquid water in contact with Europa's rocky mantle has spurred calls to send a probe there.
Europa Clipper is an interplanetary mission in development by NASA comprising an orbiter. Set for a launch in October 2024, the spacecraft is being developed to study the Galilean moon Europa through a series of flybys while in orbit around Jupiter.
The Europa Lander is a proposed astrobiology mission concept by NASA to Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. If funded and developed as a large strategic science mission, it would be launched in 2027 to complement the studies by the Europa Clipper orbiter mission and perform analyses on site. NASA's budget for fiscal year 2021 neither mandates nor allocates any funds to the mission leaving its future uncertain.
The objectives of the mission are to search for biosignatures at the subsurface ≈10 cm, to characterize the composition of non-ice near-subsurface material, and determine the proximity of liquid water and recently erupted material near the lander's location.