Tag: europa clipper

Future Spacecraft Landing On Jupiter’s Moon Europa May Have To Navigate Jagged Blades Of Ice

Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, is a prime candidate in the search for life elsewhere in our Solar System — but landing a spacecraft on the moon may be even more difficult than we thought.

Certain patches of ice on Europa could be rough and jagged, resembling sharp blades, according to a new modeling. And that may make it hard for future probes to touch down gently on the surface.

It’s possible that conditions in areas around Europa’s equator may be just right to form what are known as “penitentes.” These are unique ice formations found here on Earth in places like the Andes Mountains.

Penitentes form on Earth when super-cold ice sits in direct sunlight for long periods of time, causing patches in the ice to turn directly from a solid to a gas.

In a new study, published today in Nature Geoscience, researchers found that the exact conditions needed to create this phenomena are present on parts of Europa too.

Scientists still hope to confirm the finding with visual evidence of penitentes on Europa. But the new model is a key piece of information that could help inform NASA’s future missions.

Right now, the space agency is working on two different missions to the moon.




The first, Europa Clipper, is slated to launch sometime around 2022 and will send a spacecraft to fly by Europa and possibly zoom through the world’s plumes — suspected geysers that spew water from a vast ocean below the moon’s icy crust.

In the meantime, NASA is in the very early stages of designing a lander that could also travel to Europa someday, touch down on the surface, and then drill into the ice. That way, it could potentially sample the unseen water below.

But if parts of the surface are truly shaped like blades, it would be extremely hazardous for a conventional lander. This new research could help NASA decide which areas to avoid when considering landing spots on Europa.

And it’s possible that the upcoming Europa Clipper mission will get even more detailed images of the moon’s surface, to confirm if these formations are actually there.

We’re really hoping that the Clipper mission will tell us one way or the other,” Daniel Hobley, a geologist and planetary scientist at Cardiff University in the UK, as well as lead author on the study SAID.

We should be able to take pictures of good enough quality to prove it.”

However, answers will come soon with Europa Clipper, which will fly within 16 miles of Europa’s surface. The spacecraft also has a camera and instruments with higher resolution than Galileo had.

It will be flying over the equatorial region, which is where these features are predicted to exist,” Phillips says. “I think Europa Clipper is well-suited to see any actual evidence for these formations.

Even if ice blades are found, it’s not a showstopper for a future lander. The new study only found these high sublimation rates occurring in a narrow band around the equator, but areas closer to the poles don’t seem to have the same conditions.

There are still lots of places on the surface of Europa that would be really interesting potential landing sites that are well outside of this band,” says Phillips. “There’s no reason to shoot for the equator over anywhere else.

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New Dive Into Old Data Finds Plumes Erupt From Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Spinnable maps of Jupiter and the Galilean moons.

Europa is an ice-encrusted moon of Jupiter with a global ocean flowing underneath its surface. NASA is planning a mission soon that will look for signs of possible life there.

Now, a new finding from old data makes that mission even more tantalizing.

In recent years, the Hubble Space Telescope has spotted what looks like plumes, likely of water vapor, reaching more than 100 miles above the surface.

The plumes, if they exist, could contain molecules that hint at whether Europa possesses the building blocks of life.

In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, scientists are reporting a belated discovery that Galileo, an earlier NASA spacecraft that studied Jupiter, appears to have flown through one of the Europa plumes more than 20 years ago.

And that occurred close to one of four regions where Hubble has observed plumes.




That’s too many coincidences just to dismiss as ‘There’s nothing there’ or ‘We don’t understand the data,’” said Robert T. Pappalardo, the project scientist for NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission, which may launch as soon as 2022.

“It sure seems like there’s some phenomenon, and plumes seem consistent.”

Galileo, which launched in 1989, arrived at Jupiter in 1995 and spent almost eight years examining the planet and its moons until its mission ended with a swan dive into Jupiter in 2003.

During a flyby of Europa on Dec. 16, 1997, instruments on Galileo measured a swing in the magnetic field and a jump in the density of electrons. At the time, scientists noted the unusual readings, but they did not have an explanation.

An image taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2010 showing Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which also shoots plumes of ice crystals into space.Credit

Then, in 2005, another spacecraft passing by another moon around another planet made a startling observation.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft — which completed its mission last September — found geysers of ice crystals erupting out of Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn. Enceladus, it turns out, also has an ocean of liquid water under its ice.

That spurred renewed curiosity about Europa and whether it too might burp bits of its ocean into space. The Hubble first recorded signs of possible plumes in 2012, then again in 2014 and 2016.

But at other times, Hubble has looked and seen nothing. That suggests the plumes are sporadic.

An image of Europa’s surface. Scientists hope the Europa Clipper mission, which may launch in 2022, can be tweaked to allow one of its 40 planned flybys to pass through a plume.

Last year, Melissa A. McGrath, a senior scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. who was not involved in the new study, took a look at some radio experiments conducted by Galileo which examined how signals bent as Europa passed between Earth and the spacecraft.

The experiments showed Europa possesses an atmosphere.

Astronomers will certainly be taking more looks at Europa with the Hubble, trying to better understand how often the plumes erupt.

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