Europa’s icy crust floats ‘freely’ over moon’s hidden ocean, new Juno images suggest

On September 29, 2022, NASA’s Juno spacecraft made its closest flyby of Europa, coming within 355 kilometers of the frozen surface of Jupiter’s moon. The close-up view of Europa revealed incredible details of the moon’s chaotic terrain, suggesting the icy crust is not where it once was. The images also showed a newly discovered feature nicknamed ‘Platypus’ due to its strange shape.

The findings, made possible by the JunoCam images, were recently published in the Planetary Science Journalwhile the results derived from the spacecraft’s high-resolution images captured by the Stellar Reference Unit (SRU) were published in the journal JGR planets.

Europa is believed to harbor a salty ocean beneath its icy crust that holds twice as much water as all the oceans on Earth combined. NASA. The moon’s rugged terrain features intricate networks of ridges and dark spots, suggesting plumes of water vapor may be blowing into space.

Image for article titled Europa's Icy Crust Is 'Free-Floating' Across the Moon's Hidden Ocean, New Juno Images Suggest

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

The black-and-white image of Europa’s surface was captured by Juno’s SRU during the short flight and shows an area crossed by a network of fine grooves and double ridges, or pairs of long parallel lines, that indicate raised features in the ice . . The small white dots seen across the image are high-energy, penetrating particles, which are a result of the harsh radiation environment around the moon. Meanwhile, the dark spots may be related to fluid bubbling up from beneath the ice (also known as cryovolcanic plume activity).

At the bottom right of the image is the Platypus, which measures 67 kilometers at its widest. It has prominent ridges and dark reddish-brown material, with a lumpy matrix material filled with ice blocks 1 to 7 kilometers wide.

Around the edges of Platypus, ridge formations break up into the distinct feature. These formations support the theory that the moon’s icy shell can collapse in areas where salty water from the subsurface ocean exists beneath the surface. “These features indicate current surface activity and the presence of subsurface liquid water on Europa,” said Heidi Becker, principal investigator for SRU at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement rack.

Image for article titled Europa's Icy Crust Is 'Free-Floating' Across the Moon's Hidden Ocean, New Juno Images Suggest

Image: Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS. Image processing: Björn Jónsson (CC BY 3.0)

The images captured by the Juno spacecraft’s visible-light camera, JunoCam, show the fractures, ridges and bands that criss-cross the moon’s surface. These features on Europa’s surface have erased terrain older than about 90 million years, according to the researchers NASA.

These surface features support a theory that Europa’s outer ice layer is moving around and essentially free-floating. The ‘true polar walk’ theory, as it is known, claims that the ice crust at Europe’s north and south poles is no longer where it used to be.

“True polar wander occurs when Europa’s icy shell becomes disconnected from its rocky interior, resulting in high stress levels on the shell, leading to predictable fracture patterns,” said Candy Hansen, a Juno co-investigator who leads the planning for JunoCam at Planetary Science. Institute in Tucson, Arizona, in a statement. “This is the first time these fault patterns have been mapped in the Southern Hemisphere, suggesting that the effect of true polar wandering on the surface geology of Europe is greater than previously identified.”

The JunoCam images prompted a reassessment of a notable feature on the European surface. Hansen noted that Gwern, initially thought to be an impact crater 21 kilometers wide (13 miles wide), actually cut through mountain ridges and created an oval shadow.

NASA’s Juno mission was launched in 2011 to explore Jupiter and its various moons. Europa is of particular interest to scientists as they want to know whether life could have developed on the icy moon. That’s why the moon is getting more and more spacecraft to explore its strange features. NASAs Europa Clipper Mission is expected to arrive at Jupiter in 2030 and study Europa’s magnetic field to confirm whether an ocean exists beneath the icy crust. The The European Space Agency’s JUICE mission is headed to the Jovian system to explore the gas giant and its three ocean-bearing moons.

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