Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Colorado U. space team studying water, ice and potential life on Jupiter moon, Europa


The oozing of glacial material in the floating ice shell on Jupiter’s moon Europa has important implications for future exploration of the enigmatic moon and prospects of life in its ice-covered ocean, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder professor.

Europa’s enigmatic ridged surface is peppered by pits and spots termed lenticulae, which is Latin for freckles. In this area, the lenticulae are all about 6 miles in diameter. Their similar sizes and spacing suggest that Europa’s icy shell is churning away like a lava lamp: warmer ice moves upward from the bottom of the ice shell, while colder near-surface ice sinks downward. Reddish ice that erupts onto the surface may hold clues about the composition of Europa’s subsurface ocean, and whether that ocean supports life. Photo courtesy Jet Prolpulsion Laboratory

Robert Pappalardo, an assistant professor in the astrophysical and planetary sciences department and one of the world’s foremost Europa experts, said the icy moon is believed to contain an ocean some 13 miles under its icy surface. Satellite images appear to indicate surface warping -- including domes and reddish spots -- showing that "elevators" of sorts transport material up and down from the ocean to the surface, said the planetary scientist.

"Europa acts like a planetary lava lamp, carrying material from near the surface down to the ocean, and, if they exist, potentially transporting organisms from the ocean up toward the surface," he said. "Just a mile or two beneath the surface, the conditions may be warm enough to allow organisms to survive the journey."

The "thick shell" model of Europa has implications for the future exploration of the moon and whether the existence of life is possible in the lightless depths beneath the planet’s surface, said Pappalardo. "It would be very difficult for a future spacecraft to drill all the way through a 13-mile-deep ice shell to search for life in the underlying ocean. But the motions of glacial ice may transport ocean material, and any life it might contain, to the surface."

Pappalardo and his research group at CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics are attempting to tie together pieces of an elaborate puzzle to assemble a comprehensive model of how Europa functions. The results are being reported at the Geological Society of America meeting in Denver Oct. 27 to Nov. 1.

Under similar conditions in Arctic ice on Earth, organisms can remain in a state of hibernation until exposed to warmer and wetter conditions, he said. "If life exists in Europa’s ocean, organisms might be carried on a slow ride from the bottom to the top of Europa’s icy crust. Sampling the surface composition may provide direct insights into the nature of the ocean deep below, and could plausibly reveal dormant organisms if they exist within Europa."

CU-Boulder graduate student Amy Barr is developing a computer model to illustrate the Europa ice motions, said Pappalardo. She is modifying a computer model that has been used to understand Earth’s plate tectonics and to better understand Europa’s geology, including how nutrients created by ice irradiation at Europa’s surface might be transported down to the moon’s oceans.

Barr’s ice-convection model, the most sophisticated yet applied to Europa, may show that organisms could thrive below the thick cap of ice, Pappalardo said. It incorporates information on how the satellite’s thick ice shell is heated and how it flows as it is squeezed by the gravity of Jupiter, which raises huge tides on Europa.

CU undergraduate Michelle Stempel is analyzing Europa’s pattern of cracks and ridges to understand how the Jupiter tides have fractured the surface, and over what time scales the cracking has occurred. By matching stress patterns to surface geological features, she is studying where and how the surface cracks are created in response to short- and long-term deformation of the thick icy shell overlying an ocean.

Pappalardo also has teamed with Francis Nimmo of University College, London, to understand the similarities and differences between Europa and its sibling Jovian moon, Ganymede. Ganymede may hide an ocean beneath its icy crust much deeper than Europa’s, although Ganymede’s era of geological activity has likely long ceased. By analyzing the topography of fractures on Ganymede, the two scientists have determined that Ganymede was once nearly as warm inside as Europa is today.

"This has important implications for the history of Ganymede, and also for how Europa’s surface is shaped today," Pappalardo said. "Ganymede may be a fossil version of Europa." The two scientists found similar internal and external forces that probably have influenced the two moons, but with different geological expressions.

In addition, Pappalardo is working with Nick Makris of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study how a future Europa lander could precisely determine the depth and thickness of Europa’s ocean, using the same techniques routinely used by the Navy to measure the depth and composition of Earth’s oceans. The two are presenting back-to-back talks at Denver’s GSA meeting to illustrate how the proven terrestrial technique can apply to the exotic environment of Europa.

Pappalardo recently served on a National Research Council panel that reaffirmed a spacecraft should be launched in the coming decade with the goal of orbiting Europa. The Europa Geophysical Explorer would have scientific objectives that include confirming the presence of an ocean, remotely measuring the composition of the surface and scouting out potential landing sites for a follow-on lander mission.

Robert Pappalardo | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Move over, lasers: Scientists can now create holograms from neutrons, too
21.10.2016 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

nachricht Finding the lightest superdeformed triaxial atomic nucleus
20.10.2016 | The Henryk Niewodniczanski Institute of Nuclear Physics Polish Academy of Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>