Giant ice spikes on Europa's surface could make future landings treacherous: Study

Europa's surface resembles a forest of sharp, jagged ice spikes, some towering 50-feet-high: Study.

Few objects in our solar system are as breathtaking and intriguing as Jupiter’s moon, Europa. The entire surface of Europa is covered by salty ocean water, larger in volume than any ocean on Earth.

On the surface of this large ocean, temperatures can dip to as low as minus 300 degrees Celsius, according to NASA.

The moon's crust of water-ice forms a misty shell, visible in images captured of the moon by the Galileo spacecraft in the 1990s.

Giant ice spikes on Europas surface could make future landings treacherous: Study

In this image captured during the Galileo mission in the 1990s, Europa's icy surface and the long fissures cutting through them are evident. Image courtesy: NASA

The global presence of water on Jupiter's moon discovered during the Galileo mission was an exciting one for geologists, who viewed Europa as one of the most promising targets for potential extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

The new study has added more clarity about the surface of this ocean, which researchers have found is essentially a forest of tall, sharp spikes of ice, some of which tower as high as 50 feet above the surface.

The study, published in Nature Geoscience, posits these ice formations on Europa are uncommon, and unlike any known structures of solid ice on Earth.

While the ice on Earth can take many forms — from needles to slush to cubes or lumps — the ice on Europa will not undergo the melt-and-refreeze cycle that terrestrial ice does, Daniel Hobley, an author of the study describes, since the Moon’s surface is “incredibly cold".

Penitentes ice formations in the Chajnantor plains of Chile, as seen in 2005. Image courtesy: ESO

Penitentes ice formations in the Chajnantor plains of Chile, as seen in 2005. Image courtesy: ESO

The spikes make the surface “treacherous terrain” and pose “a hazard to any future space mission landings on the moon,” according to the study.

"In extreme cold and dry conditions on Earth, such as those encountered in the Andes, the Sun’s rays can cause parts of the ice and snow to undergo sublimation – becoming water vapour without melting first," the study adds.

This leads to some distinctive, blade-like formations of ice known as ‘penitentes’, which are found in colder regions of South America, according to a USA Today report. Researchers believe that a similar process could be responsible for the spikes on Europa.

An upcoming NASA mission, the Europa Clipper, is due to launch in the 2020s and land many years later to study Europa for its potential to host living beings.

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