Moon and Planets

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Moon and Planets

Europa is one of the more intriguing bodies in the solar system — and one that scientists are especially eager to land a spacecraft on. The big moon of Jupiter may have a global ocean below its icy crust — an ocean that could host life.

But landing on Europa won’t be easy. It’s hundreds of millions of miles away, and it’s embedded in Jupiter’s powerful radiation belts. And the surface near its equator could be mottled by fields of icy spikes that are up to five stories high.

Such structures are known as penitentes, because they resemble penitent worshippers, on their knees. On Earth, they’re found in high, dry mountains. They’re carved as the Sun evaporates some of the ice, but not all.

A study a few years ago suggested that rough terrain near the equator of Europa could consist of similar fields. The spikes would be bigger than those on Earth — up to 50 feet high, and only about 25 feet apart.

Other studies disagree with that suggestion. We may find out for sure early in the next decade, when a mission to study Europa reaches the Jovian system.

Jupiter stands to the upper left of the crescent Moon early this evening. It looks like a brilliant star. Through binoculars, Europa and some of Jupiter’s other big moons look like tiny stars near the planet. And if you aim your binoculars a little above Jupiter, you can also spot the giant planet Uranus. The Moon will huddle closer to both planets tomorrow night.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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