Europa voy­age may have to stick the land­ing

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Doyle Rice

If you’re plan­ning a trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa, be pre­pared for a rough land­ing. In a new study pub­lished in the British jour­nal Na­ture Geo­science, sci­en­tists say they’ve found ev­i­dence of huge, jagged “ice spikes,” some 50 feet tall, on the moon’s sur­face. The spikes would “pose a hazard to any fu­ture space mis­sion land­ing on the moon,” ac­cord­ing to the study. The spikes could be sim­i­lar to those found in South Amer­ica’s moun­tains. “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 va­por with­out melt­ing first,” the study said. This process leaves be­hind blade-like for­ma­tions called pen­i­tentes. Ev­i­dence of pen­i­tentes also has been seen on Pluto, sug­gest­ing that such jagged ter­rains may be com­mon on icy worlds – in­clud­ing Europa, where the spikes could be as close as about 20 feet apart, cre­at­ing a “treacherous ter­rain” for po­ten­tial land­ing craft. Due in part to its salt­wa­ter ocean, Europa is one of the more promis­ing can­di­dates for ex­trater­res­trial life in our so­lar sys­tem, NASA said, so the moon has been tar­geted as a des­ti­na­tion for a space mis­sion in the 2020s.

NASA/JPL-CAL­TECH

Two views of Europa.

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