Jupiter's Europa moon is covered in sharp blades of ice that pose a danger to future explorers of the place that is most likely to contain alien life in entire solar system, a new report finds. We know it's frozen ice, but not what condition the outermost surface is in, and if the researchers are right and there's sharp blades and spikes of rock-hard ice, sending a lander down could be an incredibly tricky task.
"The presence of sharp, blade-like structures towering to nearly 15 metres high would make any potential landing mission to Europa extremely precarious".
Any robotic spacecraft landing on the moon will have to navigate its way around lethal obstacles, a new study suggests.
A team led by scientists at the University of Cardiff predicts that shards of ice up to 50ft tall could be scattered across Europa's surface.
Europa, however, has the flawless conditions necessary for penitentes to form more uniformly - its surface is dominated by ice.
On Europa, the conditions are ideal for giant penitentes to form.
Using pre-existing observational data, the researchers calculated the sublimation rates at various points on the moon's surface, allowing them to estimate both the size and distribution of the penitentes. "Europa's surface is fragmented by grooves and ridges and we lack sufficiently high-resolution imagery to determine how smooth the ice is between these features". 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. 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. Jupiter's moon Europa is one of the most tantalizing.
Further observations are needed to definitively prove that Europa's surface is covered in the penitentes, but that could come soon. Dr Moore is a co-investigator on Europa Clipper. It is believed a landing mission could follow soon after.