The ‘Treacherous Terrain’ of Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Christopher Davidson
October 11, 2018

Shards of ice 15 metres (50ft) high could exist on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, posing a threat to landing probes, scientists say. Astronomers didn't know what this meant, only that it suggested something weird was going on in Europa's ice.

The moon of Jupiter has a saltwater ocean that scientists have long proposed visiting, because at least some researchers think it might contain extraterrestrial life. So NASA already planned to launch around 2020 the Europa Clipper mission which would land on Jupiter a few years later and try to find out exactly if a future life on Europa would be supported by the climate and environment.

Sublimation is a process through which ice turns directly into water vapour without melting into a liquid first. (The technical term for this phenomenon is sublimation.) The process can leave behind ice that gets carved into odd, spiked formations known as penitentes. They form through a process known as sublimation, which requires bright, sustained sunlight as well as cold, dry and still air.

Self-organized surface patterning is ubiquitous in terrestrial snow and ice during ablation by radiative heating, through both sublimation and melting.

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This is because of the large seas of liquid underneath the surface However, the team of researchers have found a potential problem with landing a spacecraft on Europa, due to the tall, sharp ice.

Europa however has the flawless conditions necessary for penitentes to form more uniformly - its surface is dominated by ice; it has the thermal conditions needed for ice to sublime without melting; and there is very little variation in the angle in which the sun shines on the surface. This bolsters the idea that there's something waiting on Europa's surface to tear incoming spacecraft to shreds. In 2020, a mission is also being planned for Europa which would take high resolution images of the moon's icy surface and investigate its composition and structure of its interior.

And as the new study shows, these areas are less likely to host those hazardous icy spikes. But as it's often said, space is hard.

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