Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Return To Europa: A Closer Look Is Possible

17.12.2007
Jupiter’s moon Europa is just as far away as ever, but new research is bringing scientists closer to being able to explore its tantalizing ice-covered ocean and determine its potential for harboring life.

“We’ve learned a lot about Europa in the past few years,” says William McKinnon, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

“Before we were almost sure that there was an ocean, but now the scientific community has come to a consensus that there most certainly is an ocean. We’re ready to take the next step and explore that ocean and the ice shell that overlays it. We have a number of new discoveries and techniques that can help us do that.”

McKinnon is discussing some of these recent findings and new opportunities for exploring Europa in a news briefing today at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. He is joined by colleagues Donald Blankenship, research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, and Peter Doran, associate professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago.

McKinnon points to refined methods that can use combined measurements of gravity and the magnetic field made from orbit to characterize Europa's ocean. By observing how the moon flexes and deforms and by measuring magnetic variations, researchers can determine how thick or thin the ice is over the ocean and even learn how salty the ocean is. A new model shows that radiation on Europa is much less, up to two-thirds less, than previous models predicted, making the environment much more hospitable for orbiting spacecraft or landers to operate.

Sophisticated reprocessing of data from the Galileo mission has revealed new information about the chemistry of Europa’s surface. It maps the presence of carbon dioxide, an important chemical for life, most probably coming from the ocean beneath the surface. This indicates that improved measurements from orbit have the chance to detect compounds not found in the Galileo data.

Future explorations of Europa will benefit from lessons learned from the Cassini spacecraft’s recent findings of active geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. “Europa is a young, geologically active body like Enceladus,” says McKinnon. Galileo didn’t see any plumes on Europa like those spouting from Enceladus, but it didn’t have the best instrumentation to detect the telltale hot spots. “Now we know what we should look for,” says McKinnon, “and we should expect the unexpected.”

New radar sounding techniques will be a key component for exploring Europa. “There have been theories about whether the ice above the ocean is thick or thin, and now we have the ability to determine this with radar,” says Blankenship. “That’s been proved by the radar on Mars Express, which imaged the north polar cap of Mars, and the higher-resolution radar on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Radar can give us a detailed cross section through the ice shell on Europa.” The ice-penetrating radar will also be able to locate liquid water both within and beneath the shell, he continues, just as it can spot water within crevasses and lakes beneath the ice of Antarctica. "Free water within the icy shell and its relationship to the underlying ocean will be a critical factor in determining the habitability of Europa."

Researchers are also preparing for the day in the future when they will be able to get to Europa's surface and ultimately into its ocean to explore it directly. "In the meantime, we're using extreme environments on Earth as our laboratory," says Doran. "Ice-covered lakes in Antarctica are good, small-scale analogs to what we might find on Europa." Doran is lead investigator of a project called Endurance, which, in collaboration with Stone Aerospace, is developing an autonomous underwater robotic vehicle, to test approaches and procedures for exploring Europa's ocean. The project is funded by NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program.

"We're testing the vehicle in Wisconsin in February 2008," Doran says, "and then we'll be deploying it in Antarctica later in the year." The robotic explorer will be able to create three-dimensional maps of the subsurface Antarctic lake. It will also be able to map the biochemistry of the water body, pinpointing the chemical signatures that may indicate life.

For Europa, under-ice exploration lies in the distant future. In the meantime, say the researchers, a closer look at Europa is possible from an orbiting spacecraft able to measure gravity and magnetic fields, determine surface composition, search for active or recent eruptions, and use radar to understand the relationship between the surface and the sub-surface.

J.B. Bird | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.utexas.edu

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht NASA looks to solar eclipse to help understand Earth's energy system
21.07.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht Scientists shed light on carbon's descent into the deep Earth
19.07.2017 | European Synchrotron Radiation Facility

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Manipulating Electron Spins Without Loss of Information

Physicists have developed a new technique that uses electrical voltages to control the electron spin on a chip. The newly-developed method provides protection from spin decay, meaning that the contained information can be maintained and transmitted over comparatively large distances, as has been demonstrated by a team from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute. The results have been published in Physical Review X.

For several years, researchers have been trying to use the spin of an electron to store and transmit information. The spin of each electron is always coupled...

Im Focus: The proton precisely weighted

What is the mass of a proton? Scientists from Germany and Japan successfully did an important step towards the most exact knowledge of this fundamental constant. By means of precision measurements on a single proton, they could improve the precision by a factor of three and also correct the existing value.

To determine the mass of a single proton still more accurate – a group of physicists led by Klaus Blaum and Sven Sturm of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear...

Im Focus: On the way to a biological alternative

A bacterial enzyme enables reactions that open up alternatives to key industrial chemical processes

The research team of Prof. Dr. Oliver Einsle at the University of Freiburg's Institute of Biochemistry has long been exploring the functioning of nitrogenase....

Im Focus: The 1 trillion tonne iceberg

Larsen C Ice Shelf rift finally breaks through

A one trillion tonne iceberg - one of the biggest ever recorded -- has calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica, after a rift in the ice,...

Im Focus: Laser-cooled ions contribute to better understanding of friction

Physics supports biology: Researchers from PTB have developed a model system to investigate friction phenomena with atomic precision

Friction: what you want from car brakes, otherwise rather a nuisance. In any case, it is useful to know as precisely as possible how friction phenomena arise –...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Closing the Sustainability Circle: Protection of Food with Biobased Materials

21.07.2017 | Event News

»We are bringing Additive Manufacturing to SMEs«

19.07.2017 | Event News

The technology with a feel for feelings

12.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

NASA looks to solar eclipse to help understand Earth's energy system

21.07.2017 | Earth Sciences

Stanford researchers develop a new type of soft, growing robot

21.07.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Vortex photons from electrons in circular motion

21.07.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>