Scientists confirm water ice at moon's poles

  • Scientists confirm water ice at moon's poles

Scientists confirm water ice at moon's poles

While this mission will see the spacecraft perform 45 flybys of Europa, the eventual goal would be to land on the moon, but scientists believe this could be more challenging than previously thought.

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. The spikes are caused by ablation of ice and are similar to the ice deposits around the Earth's equator known as penitentes, which would make any future missions to the moon tricky.

A team led by scientists from Cardiff University has predicted that fields of sharp ice growing to nearly 15 metres tall could be scattered across the equatorial regions of Jupiter's moon, Europa. (The technical term for this phenomenon is sublimation.) The process can leave behind ice that gets carved into unusual, spiked formations known as penitentes. To form, these icy spikes require bright sustained sunlight, and also cold, dry, still air. When sublimation occurs, these distinctive blade-like formations are left behind. "We find that surface sublimation rates exceed those of erosion by space weathering processes in Europa's equatorial belt (latitudes below 23°), and that conditions would favour penitente growth".

In a new paper published yesterday (Oct. 8) in the journal Nature Geoscience, researchers likened the environment at Europa to high altitudes on Earth. This bolsters the idea that there's something waiting on Europa's surface to tear incoming spacecraft to shreds.

And as the new study shows, these areas are less likely to host those hazardous icy spikes.

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them", said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, at NASA Headquarters.

Excitingly, the Europa Clipper mission may be a forerunner to a landing mission on the Jovian moon, in which a probe would drill through the icy surface and plunge into the dark ocean beneath. And as we continue to push the envelope, it'll only continue to get harder.