Ice shards 15 metres high 'cover' Jupiter's moon

Jupiter moon mission may be hampered by giant ice shards, scientists warn

In a new study published today in Nature Geoscience scientists state that any potential landing mission may have to navigate hazardous obstacles known as "penitentes" before touching down on Europa's surface.

Shards of ice up to 15m (50ft) high on the surface of one of Jupiter's moon could cause problems for landing probes.

We haven't really seen any detailed images of Europa previously, so we can't say; but since these scientists claim that there's rock-hard ice there, it has to be there through a mechanism.

The moon, which is covered by an ice-encrusted ocean of salty water, has a habitat that may support life.

"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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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.

Penitentes are tall sharp-edged blades and spikes made of snow and ice that point towards the midday sun.

"Beneath the icy surface of Europa is perhaps the most promising place to look for present-day environments suitable for life", NASA said. When lumps of ice sublimate, the jagged shards are left behind.

Conditions on Europa may be ideal for "penitentes" to form, which are spiky, bladed ice formations found on Earth at higher elevations such as the Andes Mountains. But all the conditions that create penitentes are present on Europa in more extreme fashion, the researchers argued. This bolsters the idea that there's something waiting on Europa's surface to tear incoming spacecraft to shreds. (The cameras on spacecraft that have flown past Europa so far just haven't been sharp-eyed enough to spot the features.) And there is some chance that incoming radiation from Jupiter would smooth out jaggedness on the Jupiter-facing side of the icy world.

Sometime in the early 2020s NASA is planning on launching an orbiter to Europa called the Europa Clipper.

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