Tag Archives: Europa

Giant ice pinnacles on Europa

In a new paper scientists note that getting the congressionally mandated Europa Clipper safely to the surface of Jupiter’s moon might be threatened by the existence there of forests of giant five-story high ice pinnacles.

Probes have shown that Europa’s ice-bound surface is riven with fractures and ridges, and new work published today in Nature Geosciences suggests any robotic lander could face a nasty surprise, in the form of vast fields of ice spikes, each standing as tall as a semitruck is long.

Such spikes are created on Earth in the frigid tropical peaks of the Andes Mountains, where they are called “pentinentes,” for their resemblance to devout white-clad monks. First described by Charles Darwin, pentinentes are sculpted by the sun in frozen regions that experience no melt; instead, the fixed patterns of light cause the ice to directly vaporize, amplifying minute surface variations that result in small hills and shadowed hollows. These dark hollows absorb more sunlight than the bright peaks around them, vaporizing down further in a feedback loop.

This work is based on computer models, so it has a lot of uncertainty. It also appears to assume that these pentinentes will be widespread across Europa’s equatorial regions, something so unlikely I find it embarrassing that they even imply it. I guarantee Europa’s surface will be more varied than that. If they are designing Europa Clipper properly, it will go into orbit first to scout out the best landing site, and will be able to avoid such hazards.


Radiation maps of Europa

By culling together data from Voyager 1 and the Galileo orbiter, scientists have created a radiation map of the surface of Europa.

Using data from Galileo’s flybys of Europa two decades ago and electron measurements from NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, Nordheim and his team looked closely at the electrons blasting the moon’s surface. They found that the radiation doses vary by location. The harshest radiation is concentrated in zones around the equator, and the radiation lessens closer to the poles.

Mapped out, the harsh radiation zones appear as oval-shaped regions, connected at the narrow ends, that cover more than half of the moon.

…In his new paper, Nordheim didn’t stop with a two-dimensional map. He went deeper, gauging how far below the surface the radiation penetrates, and building 3D models of the most intense radiation on Europa. The results tell us how deep scientists need to dig or drill, during a potential future Europa lander mission, to find any biosignatures that might be preserved.

The answer varies, from 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) in the highest-radiation zones – down to less than 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) deep in regions of Europa at middle- and high-latitudes, toward the moon’s poles.

This model, which by the way probably has large margins of error, will be used as a guide by the Europa Clipper scientists now planning that orbiter’s mission.


Europa water plume detected in old Galileo data

Using old Galileo data and new techniques of analysis scientists have uncovered a water plume on Europa that the spacecraft flew through in 1997.

Over the course of 5 minutes, spikes the spacecraft recorded with its magnetic and plasma sensors reflected the alterations that a veil of ejected water, from one or many vents, could cause in a region matching the telescope observations, they report today in Nature Astronomy. This indicates that a region of the moon potentially 1000 kilometers long could host such activity, though it is impossible to say whether this is a single plume or many, like the complex system of fractures and vents seen on Enceladus. Indeed, on its own, this evidence was too weak to tie to erupting water in a 2001 study describing it, the authors add, but it fits well with the Hubble and modeled evidence.

As indicated by the quote above, the result has a lot of uncertainty.


Water plumes on Europa plus hydrogen in Enceladus plumes

Scientists have detected more evidence of underground oceans on both Europa (orbiting Jupiter) and Enceladus (orbiting Saturn).

In the case of Europa, the Hubble Space Telescope has once again detected plumes of water ice being shot up from cracks in the moon’s surface. This second detection confirms the first from two years ago.

In the case of Enceladus, Cassini data has detected the presence of hydrogen in the plumes totaling 1% of the total material in the plumes.

The Europa story is significant, in that it confirms that the moon is still active geologically, and that the underground ocean is interacting with the outside world by ejecting material from it to the surface. This increases the odds that there will be some very intriguing chemistry in that ocean, including the possibility of organic life.

The Enceladus story puzzles me. We already know that the plumes there are made of water, which in itself is one third hydrogen. Why should anyone be surprised that a portion of that water gets split so that some of the hydrogen gets released as an atom instead of part of the water molecule. In fact, this discovery does not seem to me to be much of a discovery at all, but simply a confirmation that the plumes have the materials from the water ocean below the surface. That NASA has pushed it this week so hard in conjunction with their future Europa Clipper mission suggests that this part of the press story is really about lobbying for funds and has little to do with science.


Water plumes on Europa?

New data from the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that there might be active water plumes issuing from Europa that are fed by the planet’s underground ocean.

In 10 separate occurrences spanning 15 months, the team observed Europa passing in front of Jupiter. They saw what could be plumes erupting on three of these occasions.

This work provides supporting evidence for water plumes on Europa. In 2012, a team led by Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, detected evidence of water vapor erupting from the frigid south polar region of Europa and reaching more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) into space. Although both teams used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph instrument, each used a totally independent method to arrive at the same conclusion.

These results are very very uncertain. As the lead scientist noted twice during the press conference, the data is at the very limits of Hubble’s capabilities. I would not be surprised at all if later observations find that it is in error.

In fact, the press conference itself was more a PR event to lobby for Hubble as well as the James Webb Space Telescope than it was a description of a new discovery. The discovery itself was given a much bigger tease than it really deserves, considering the very uncertain nature of its data. I am a big fan of Hubble, as anyone who has read anything I have written in the past two decades. Nonetheless, I find this blatant lobbying very annoying. Also very annoying will be the naive willingness of many in the press to buy into this story. Expect a lot of silly stories today and tomorrow screaming that water jets coming from Europa have been definitely photographed by Hubble.


Congress pushes for Europa missions

A new House budget bill stipulates that NASA fly two unmanned missions to Europa, including a lander, and do it soon.

The bill also includes several hundred million per year for the missions, at least at the beginning. Even though planetary scientists have recommended that NASA do at least one mission to Eurpoa relatively soon, it appears that these missions are the particular pet projects of the committee chairman in Congress.


Is the dark material along Europa’s long surface fissures sea salt?

The uncertainty of science: By creating what they call “Europa in a can” here on Earth, scientists have determined that the dark material that appears to have seeped out of Europa’s long linear fractures might be sea salt from the underground ocean, turned brown by the harsh radiation hitting the moon’s surface.

This result is quite intriguing, but the only thing certain about it is its uncertainty. The only way we will know what this brown material really is will be to go there again with much better equipment and study the material itself


Europe has decided to build a probe, dubbed JUICE, to study Ganymede, Callisto and Europa, Jupiter’s big icy moons.

Europe has decided to build a probe to study Ganymede, Callisto and Europa, Jupiter’s big icy moons.

Known as JUICE, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, the probe will enter orbit around the gas giant planet in 2030 for a series of flybys of Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. JUICE will brake into orbit around Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, in 2032 for at least one year of close-up research.