It’s almost as if Europa has something to protect, something that it doesn’t want us to see.
The moon of Jupiter has a saltwater ocean that scientists have long proposed visiting, because at least some researchers think it might contain extraterrestrial life. But there could be a problem: Scientists now report that there’s a good chance 50-foot (15 meters) ice blades defend this fascinating place.
In a new paper published yesterday (Oct. 8) in the journal Nature Geoscience, researchers likened the environment at Europa to high altitudes on Earth. In those spots, when the sun blasts fields of ice, it can turn the ice directly into gas, which then drifts away. (The technical term for this phenomenon is sublimation.) The process can leave behind ice that gets carved into strange, spiked formations known as penitentes.
On Earth, these formations are usually limited to at most a few feet (1 or 2 meters) in height. But all the conditions that create penitentes are present on Europa in more extreme fashion, the researchers argued. As a result, Europa’s ice spikes might tower as high as a medium-size building.