50-Foot-Tall Ice Spikes Cover Europa, New Study Suggests | Planetary Science

Mindy Sparks
October 11, 2018

While this mission will see the spacecraft perform 45 flybys of Europa, the eventual goal would be to land on the moon, but scientists believe this could be more challenging than previously thought.

If you're planning a trip to Jupiter's moon Europa, be prepared for a rough landing. They spikes would "pose a hazard to any future space mission landing on the moon", according to the study.

"In extreme cold and dry conditions on Earth, such as those encountered in the Andes, the sun's rays can cause parts of the ice and snow to undergo sublimation - becoming water vapor without melting first", the study said.

New research published this week in Nature Geoscience suggests Europa's surface is covered with tall, sharp-edged icy blades known as penitentes (pronounced PEN-E-TENT-EES).

The team has "directly observed definitive evidence" of ice deposits on the surface of the moon using a scientific instrument that measures how molecules absorb light.

In their study, the researchers used observational data to calculate the sublimation rates at various points on Europa's surface and thus used these to estimate the size and distribution of penitentes. Actually traveling to Europa is still little more than a dream, but when we eventually make it happen we may need to grapple with something unexpected: a surface covered in brutal blades of ice.

Europa harbours a huge ocean under an icy crust up to 15 miles thick - conditions in which organisms could thrive. 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.

If Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on Europa instead of our moon, that "small step" would have been significantly more treacherous. Unlike on Hoth, where life thrives on the icy surface, life on Europa would thrive in the ocean beneath its frigid surface - but evidence for it might be just beyond the reach of our experiments.

Sometime in the early 2020s NASA is planning on launching an orbiter to Europa called the Europa Clipper.

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