Jupiter’s moon Europa Could Be Home to 50-foot Penitentes
Although many astronomers believe that Jupiter’s moon Europa, with its subsurface ocean, could host alien life new research suggests it could be difficult to land a spacecraft there. The moon’s surface appears to be cluttered with icy spikes, the tallest of which measures five stories high.
The new research was recently published in Nature Geoscience and suggests Europa’s surface is covered with tall, sharp-edged icy spikes called penitentes (pronounced PEN-E-TENT-EES). Since Europa, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus, has a vast subsurface ocean that could function as a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life the presence of these penitentes—some as high as 50 feet—could present a significant obstacle to a future lander on Europa, as per the researchers study.
As Asgardia works to ensure the peaceful use of space for everyone and build habitable platforms in low-Earth orbit, it is important to follow these kinds of findings.
Penitentes are made up of snow and ice, and they come about via sublimation—a chemical process where ice turns directly into water vapour without melting into a liquid first. What’s left over after this process is the penitentes themselves, which always point towards the midday sun. To form, these icy spikes need bright sustained sunlight, and also cold, dry, still air.
Here on Earth, one can find penitentes but only in high-altitude areas near the tropics, like the Andes. The ones on Earth range in size from around 3 to 16 feet. Daniel Hobley from Cardiff University and his team who authored study highlight how the conditions on Europa are much better for penitente formation. For instance, Europa’s surface is covered in ice, it has the perfect temperature, and other environmental factors to support sublimation, as well as a consistent angle of incoming sunlight.
As of now, the resolution of photographs taken of Europa’s surface hasn’t been detailed enough to show the penitentes, so they remain hypothetical. But, computer models run by Hobley and his team strongly support their presence. Using observational data, the researchers calculated the sublimation rates at different points on the moon’s surface, enabling them to estimate both the size and distribution of the penitentes. As per the models, Europa’s penitentes can grow to around 50 feet tall (15 meters), with a spacing of about 25 feet (7.5 meters) between each one. The icy spikes are likely to be more common around Europa’s equatorial regions, according to the study.
But there is a silver lining, and that’s that a future mission to Europa might avoid the equatorial regions regardless Research published in July suggests scientists on the hunt for life will have a better chance of finding potential biosignatures in Europa’s younger ice and in lower-radiation locations.
This type of ice, which is less than 10 million years old, should exist in the mid-to-high latitudes, where the moon points away from Jupiter. As the new study points out, these areas are less likely to be home to those icy spikes.
What’s more, further observations are required to definitively prove that Europa’s surface is covered in the penitentes, but that could come soon. NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft is set to deploy at some point between 2022 and 2025. This orbital probe features many instruments, and it’ll come to as close as 16 miles (25 kilometres) to Europa’s surface. Intriguingly, the Europa Clipper mission may be a forerunner to a landing mission on Jupiter’s moon, where a probe would drill through the icy surface and dive into the dark ocean beneath.
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