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

11 October 2018

In a new paper published yesterday (Oct. 8) in the journal Nature Geoscience, researchers likened the environment at Europa to high altitudes on Earth.

The ice-covered world hides a vast ocean beneath its surface, and cracks in its thick ice sheets regularly spew water out into space, teasing us with the possibility that something lives far below.

"The presence of sharp, blade-like structures towering to nearly 15 metres high would make any potential landing mission to Europa extremely precarious", he added.

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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.

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. Those conditions include a surface covered in ice, ideal temperatures, other environmental factors to support sublimation, and a consistent angle of incoming sunlight. But all the conditions that create penitentes are present on Europa in more extreme fashion, the researchers argued.

They concluded that the penitentes could potentially grow to around 50 feet tall with a spacing of around 25 feet (7.5 m) between each one.

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If you're planning a trip to Jupiter's moon Europa, be prepared for a rough landing. It should also give scientists a much better idea of what the surface looks like, and if it sees a bed of icy spikes, NASA will have to figure out how to deal with them for future missions. NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft is scheduled to launch at some point between 2022 and 2025.

Excitingly, the Europa Clipper mission may be a forerunner to a landing mission on the Jovian moon, in which a probe would drill through the icy surface and plunge into the dark ocean beneath.

The technical requirements of such a mission boggle the mind, and now, with the news that Europa's surface may contain vast fields of penitentes, there's an added complication. And as we continue to push the envelope, it'll only continue to get harder.

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