Sunday, 16 June, 2019

Jupiter’s Europa might be a spiky, risky place to land a ship

Jupiter moon mission may be hampered by giant ice shards, scientists warn Ice shards 15 metres high 'cover' Jupiter's moon
Sandy Nunez | 11 October, 2018, 02:29

The moon, which is covered by an ice-encrusted ocean of salty water, has a habitat that may support life. This process leaves behind distinctive, blade-like formations called penitentes. Some of these spikes are 50 feet tall and could pose a hazard to future missions landing on the moon.

The conditions on Europa are considerably better for penitente formation, as the authors of the new study, led by Daniel Hobley from Cardiff University, point out.

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

But on Europa, conditions are ideal for the formation of giant penitentes. According to the models, Europa's penitentes are capable of growing to around 15m tall, with a spacing of about 7.5m between each one. 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.

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Past studies of Europa's icy shell have envisioned a surface that is smooth at the lander scale, dominated by diffusive impact processes such as impact gardening and sputtering by charged particles in Jupiter's magnetic field. When ice is exposed to the elements for long periods of time - specifically when it's bathed in sunlight but ambient temperature remains well below freezing - it tends to form valleys and peaks which become more pointed and "sharp" over time. This bolsters the idea that there's something waiting on Europa's surface to tear incoming spacecraft to shreds.

Further observations are needed to definitively prove that Europa's surface is covered in the penitentes, but that could come soon.

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.

"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.