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 'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region
16.03.2018 | American Institute of Physics

nachricht Fraunhofer HHI have developed a novel single-polarization Kramers-Kronig receiver scheme
16.03.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Nachrichtentechnik, Heinrich-Hertz-Institut, HHI

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: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Wandering greenhouse gas

16.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region

16.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

16.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>