Jagged blades of ice may cover the equatorial area of Europa

Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is a prime target for future space missions as it harbours a buried ocean that could have the right conditions for life.

But attempts to land may face a major hazard: jagged “blades” of ice up to 10m long.

A major US conference has heard the moon may have ideal conditions for icy spikes called “penitentes” to form.

Scientists would like to send a lander down to sample surface regions where water wells up through the icy crust.

These areas could allow a robotic probe to sample a proxy for ocean water that lies several kilometres deep.

Details of the penitentes theory were announced as scientists outlined another proposal to explore the jovian moon with robotic spacecraft.

On Earth, these features (so named because of their resemblance to the pointed caps worn by “penitents” in Easter processions around the Spanish-speaking world) form in high altitude regions such as the Andes.

Here, the air is both cold and dry, allowing ice to sublimate (turn from a solid into vapour without passing through a liquid phase).

Penitentes begin to form when irregularities in the surface of the snow are enhanced by the Sun’s energy. These furrows then act as a trap for solar radiation, and, as they deepen, the tall peaks are left behind.

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