Jupiter’s Frozen Moon Is Studded With 50-Foot Blades of Ice

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Jupiter’s Frozen Moon Is Studded With 50-Foot Blades of Ice

Daniel Hobley, a scientist at Cardiff University, and his colleagues used data from the Galileo spacecraft, a NASA mission that studied Jupiter and its moons between 1995 and 2003, to study sublimation rates on Europa. They found that in some parts of the moon, sublimation was overcome by other phenomena, like a bombardment of tiny meteorites and particles from space, which smooth out the surface. But at the equator, conditions favored sublimation, which does the opposite.

To blossom, penitentes require dry air, cold temperatures, and sustained exposure to sunlight. Europa’s equatorial regions provide all three. Here, the scientists concluded, a jagged terrain of four-story-tall spikes could emerge and survive.

These are, of course, only predictions. But they provide some of the richest descriptions of the texture of Europa, one of the best candidates for extraterrestrial life in the solar system. The most powerful ground and space telescopes, even Hubble, aren’t strong enough to resolve such surface details. The Galileo mission produced some stunning photographs of criss-crossing fissures in Europa’s ice, but only from afar.

“I would hope it would add something to people’s ability to picture what they might see if they were able to actually wander around on the surface—or, I guess, clamber around, given the spikes,” Hobley says. “A bit of a Google image search reveals some cool visualizations of the surface, but these come from people just assuming things would look like Antartica and Greenland. We’re showing that we can actually think about this scientifically, and we might see something much cooler and more exotic.”

Cynthia Phillips, a planetary geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is hesitant to put too much weight on the researchers’ predictions. She points out that the Galileo mission provided data on sublimation rates on a global scale, rather than a regional one. “It’s a bit of a stretch to extrapolate that far,” Phillips says. “That said, it’s the only information we have right now, and so it does make sense to make a prediction and say, hey, these features are possible.”

Such predictions are important if, like NASA, you’re planning another trip to the Jovian system. The agency is preparing to send a spacecraft to Europa in 2020 to loop around the moon dozens of times and investigate all kinds of features, from the icy surface to the flowing ocean underneath. The mission, known as Clipper, will be equipped with imaging technology capable of spotting the icy blades at the moon’s equator, if they exist.

Hobley and his fellow researchers suggest that penitentes on Europa could pose a hazard to other types of spacecraft, like landers. NASA has proposed a lander mission, but the concept is still being studied. If penitentes are indeed crowded around the equator, engineers could easily avoid them by landing somewhere else.

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Jupiter's Frozen Moon Is Studded With 50-Foot Blades Of Ice
Jupiter's Frozen Moon Is Studded With 50-Foot Blades Of Ice
Jupiter's Frozen Moon Is Studded With 50-Foot Blades Of Ice
Jupiter's Frozen Moon Is Studded With 50-Foot Blades Of Ice
Jupiter's Frozen Moon Is Studded With 50-Foot Blades Of Ice

Jupiter's Frozen Moon Is Studded With 50-Foot Blades Of Ice

Jupiter's Frozen Moon Is Studded With 50-Foot Blades Of Ice

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