New Study Suggests Jupiter's Moon Europa Is Covered in 50-Foot Ice Spikes

Wednesday, 10 October 2018 - 11:55AM
Wednesday, 10 October 2018 - 11:55AM
New Study Suggests Jupiter's Moon Europa Is Covered in 50-Foot Ice Spikes
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NASA/JPL/CalTech
If Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on Europa instead of our moon, that "small step" would have been significantly more treacherous. According to a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, the smallest of Jupiter's four Galilean moons is covered in ice spikes that stand up to 50 feet tall. 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.

"For this process to take place on another planet, the ice must be sufficiently volatile to sublimate under surface conditions and diffusive processes that act to smooth the topography must operate more slowly," the study says. "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." The spikes are estimated to spaced every 24 feet, which would give astronauts a very narrow needle to thread to get a lander to the natural satellite's surface without being impaled. The authors of the study say that images of the moon are not at a high enough resolution to actually see the ice formations, but there is thermal data to support what they believe the landscape is like.

According to Space.comNASA has been working on a plan to send a lander to Europa on a "life-hunting" mission. What lies beneath Europa's icy surface is a question that scientists really want to answer. A fly-by is in the works for 2020, which should give the space agency a better idea of the moon's habitability. If what they discover matches what Daniel E.J. Hobley and his colleagues suggest in their study, then plans may have to be altered. 


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