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

Pat Wise
October 11, 2018

Jupiter's moon Europa is one of the most tantalizing.

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.

Colour view of Europa from Galileo that shows the largest portion of the moon's surface at the highest resolution.

Such spikes occur in extremely cold and dry conditions, when under the influence of sunlight the ice undergo sublimation - they move from solid to gas, bypassing the liquid stage, according to the study.

A team led by scientists from Cardiff University has predicted that fields of sharp ice growing to nearly 15 metres tall could be scattered across the equatorial regions of Jupiter's moon, Europa.

Known as penitentes, these sublimation-sculpted blades grow to between 3 to 16 feet (1-5 m) tall, but they are restricted to high-altitude tropical and subtropical conditions, such as in the Andes.

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Research published this past July suggests scientists on the hunt for life will have a better chance of finding potential biosignatures in Europa's younger ice and in lower-radiation locations.

The sharp ice is left on Jupiter's moon Europa due to its environmental conditions.

"Beneath the icy surface of Europa is perhaps the most promising place to look for present-day environments suitable for life", NASA had earlier said.

Europa however has the ideal conditions necessary for penitentes to form more uniformly - its surface is dominated by ice; it has the thermal conditions needed for ice to sublime without melting; and there is very little variation in the angle in which the sun shines on the surface. NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft is scheduled to launch at some point between 2022 and 2025. This orbital probe is packed with instruments, and it'll come to as close as 25km to Europa's surface.

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.

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