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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