NASA Study Suggests Europa’s Icy Crust May Contain Shallow Lakes That Could Erupt

According to recent study, small lakes in the icy crust of the Jovian moon’s surface are the source of any plumes or volcanic activity there. NASA’s Europa Clipper can test these possibilities.

Subsurface bodies of water in our outer solar system are some of the most crucial targets in the hunt for life beyond Earth. NASA is sending the Europa Clipper spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa for the following reasons: There is compelling evidence that the moon is covered in a global ocean that may one day support life.

NASA Study Suggests Shallow Lakes in Europa’s Icy Crust Could Erupt

However, according to experts, there is other water on Europa as well. They think salty liquid reserves may exist inside the moon’s icy shell, some of them near to the surface of the ice and some of them kilometres below, based on findings from NASA’s Galileo orbiter.

When NASA sends Europa Clipper to undertake a thorough investigation in 2024, it is more likely that scientists will know where to seek for water the more knowledge they have about the water that Europa may be holding. The spacecraft will fly by the moon around 50 times as it orbits Jupiter and uses its array of sophisticated instruments to collect scientific data.

Scientists are now better understanding the appearance and behaviour of the subsurface lakes on Europa thanks to studies. A significant finding in an article recently published in Planetary Science Journal confirms the long-held hypothesis that water may occasionally erupt above the surface of Europa as vapour plumes or as cryovolcanic activity (think: flowing, slushy ice rather than molten lava).

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Further computer modelling in the research demonstrates that, in the event that Europa has eruptions, they are more likely to originate from shallow, large lakes trapped in the ice rather than the deep ocean far below.

Elodie Lesage, a Europa scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and the principal author of the study, said: “We demonstrated that plumes or cryolava flows could suggest there are shallow liquid reservoirs underneath, which Europa Clipper would be able to identify.” “Our findings provide fresh information on the potential depth of the water that is generating surface activity, including plumes. Additionally, the water should be shallow enough for numerous Europa Clipper detectors to detect it.

Various Depths, Various Ice

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Lesage’s computer simulation provides a template for what researchers would discover if they looked inside the ice and saw explosions on the surface. Her calculations predict that they would find reservoirs in the upper 2.5 to 5 miles (4 to 8 kilometres) of the crust, where the ice is the coldest and most brittle, quite close to the surface.

As the pockets of water freeze and expand, they might break the surrounding ice and generate eruptions, similar to how a Coke can in a freezer explodes. This is because the underlying ice there prevents expansion. If any pockets of water do break through, they will probably be wide and flat like pancakes.

Deeper reservoirs, with floors greater than 5 miles (8 kilometres) below the crust, would expand and push on warmer ice around them. That ice is sufficiently malleable to serve as a cushion, absorbing the pressure instead of breaking. These pockets of water wouldn’t behave like a can of soda, but more like a balloon packed with liquid that simply stretches as the liquid inside freezes and expands.

Observing Directly

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When the spacecraft reaches Europa in 2030, researchers on the Europa Clipper mission can use this study. One of the important tools that will be used to search for water pockets in the ice is the radar device, known as Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON).

The team that developed the radar instrument was led by Don Blankenship of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics in Austin, Texas. “The new work shows that water bodies in the shallow subsurface could be unstable if stresses exceed the strength of the ice and could be associated with plumes rising above the surface,” he said. That implies that REASON might be able to detect aquatic bodies where you detect plumes.

Other tools on the Europa Clipper will be able to put the new research’s theories to the test. High-resolution colour and stereographic photos of Europa will be able to be captured by the science cameras, while an infrared camera will be used by the thermal emission imager to map Europa’s temperatures and look for signs of geologic activity, including cryovolcanism. The UV spectrograph, a device that studies ultraviolet light, would be able to see plumes if they are erupting.

Details of the Mission

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Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary field of study that examines the conditions of other worlds that may be home to life as we know it. Missions like the Europa Clipper add to this field of study. Europa Clipper will perform a thorough investigation of Europa and look into whether the ice moon, with its deep ocean, has the capacity to support life. However, it is not a mission to look for life. Scientists will gain a better understanding of the habitability of Europa as well as the potential for discovering life outside of Earth.

JPL, which is run by Caltech in Pasadena, California, collaborates with APL to develop the Europa Clipper mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Together with JPL and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, APL created the main spacecraft body. The Europa Clipper mission is managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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