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Jupiter’s moon Europa may have a habitable ice shell


Scientists have been puzzled for more than 20 years by the dramatic indentations in Europe’s icy surface. These double ridges have ridges up to nearly 1,000 feet (305 meters) high, with wide valleys between them. These features were first imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the 1990s, but researchers have been unable to determine how they formed.

While studying the Greenland Ice Sheet using ice-penetrating radar observations, a team of researchers observed a similar double-ridged feature in the shape of the letter M that looks like a mini-version of the one in Europe.

Airborne instruments help researchers study Earth’s polar regions to observe changes in the ice caps that could affect global sea levels. These eyes in the sky also look for meltwater ponds of surface, conduits that carry seasonal drainage and subglacial lakes.

“We were working on something totally different related to climate change and its impact on the surface of Greenland when we saw these tiny double ridges – and we could see the ridges change from ‘unformed’ to ‘formed'”, Study lead author Dustin Schroeder, an associate professor of geophysics at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, said in a statement.

Operation IceBridge – a NASA mission that collected surface elevation and radar data of the ice sheet between 2015 and 2017 – revealed that Greenland’s Double Ridge formed after the ice formed fractured around the refreezing water inside the ice cap. The water pocket pressure caused the distinct peaks to rise.

This has led researchers to wonder if the same might be possible on Europa, where pockets of water could exist beneath the ice shell – and create potentially habitable environments on the moon’s otherwise inhospitable shell.

“In Greenland, this double ridge formed where water from surface lakes and streams frequently flows to the surface and freezes again,” said study lead author Riley Culberg. , an electrical engineering doctoral student at Stanford, in a statement.

“One way that similar shallow pockets of water could form on Europa could be that water from the subterranean ocean is forced into the ice shell by fractures – and this would suggest that there could be an amount reasonable exchanges inside the ice shell.”

An ever-changing lunar surface

Europa appears to be a dynamic place, where plumes of water rise through cracks in the shell of ice, which is tens of kilometers thick. And this shell of ice could be a place where the underground ocean and nutrients mix.

Jupiter’s moon Europa may have a habitable ice shell

“Because it’s closer to the surface, where you get interesting chemicals from space, other moons, and the volcanoes of Io (another moon that orbits Jupiter), it’s possible that the life takes a hit if there are pockets of water in the shell,” says Schroeder. “If the mechanism we see in Greenland is the way these things happen on Europa, that suggests there’s water everywhere.”

It was the first time scientists could observe something similar happening on Earth and actually observe the subsurface processes that led to the formation of the ridges, Culberg said.

“The mechanism we propose in this paper would have been almost too bold and complicated to propose without seeing it happen in Greenland,” Schroeder said.

The vast data the team has already collected on the Greenland Ice Sheet could allow them to use it as an analogue for dynamic processes occurring on Europa in the future as well.

The temperature, chemistry and pressure are different on Europa compared to Greenland, so the team wants to study how these pockets of water work on Europa.

Europa is the target of two upcoming missions, the European Space Agency’s JUICE (short for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) and NASA’s Europa Clipper. Clipper will carry ice-penetrating radar, similar to how researchers surveyed Greenland, to collect subterranean images of Europa’s ice shell.

Europa stands out as one of the best candidates for hosting extraterrestrial life in our solar system because of the liquid water in the subterranean ocean and what scientists understand about its chemistry, Culberg said.


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