Why Jupiter’s Europa moon could be straight out of Game of Thrones

Jupiter moon mission may be hampered by giant ice shards, scientists warn

Known as "penitentes", the formations are sharp-edged blades and spikes that point towards the mid-day sun. Europa, the ice-covered Jovian moon where the existence of alien life hasn't been ruled out.

Such spikes occur in extremely cold and dry conditions, when under the influence of sunlight the ice undergo sublimation - they move from solid to gas, bypassing the liquid stage, according to the study.

A team led by scientists at the University of Cardiff predicts that shards of ice up to 50ft tall could be scattered across Europa's surface.

Jupiter's moon, Europa, could be littered with massive "icy spikes" which would make future space missions hard if astronomers hope to touch down on the surface, according to a report published this week in Nature Geoscience. Its surface is mainly ice and it has the thermal conditions required for ice to sublime without melting. It should also give scientists a much better idea of what the surface looks like, and if it sees a bed of icy spikes, NASA will have to figure out how to deal with them for future missions.

Europa's surface, clicked by Galileo spacecraft.

If there is some good news in all of this, it's that a future mission to Europa might avoid the equatorial regions anyway.

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The blades of sharp ice on Jupiter's moon Europa are called "penitentes".

Conditions on Europa may be ideal for "penitentes" to form, which are spiky, bladed ice formations found on Earth at higher elevations such as the Andes Mountains.

Further observations are needed to definitively prove that Europa's surface is covered in the penitentes, but that could come soon.

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them", said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, at NASA Headquarters. This orbital probe is packed with instruments, and it'll come to as close as 25km to Europa's surface. It is believed a landing mission could follow soon after.

The technical requirements of such a mission boggle the mind, and now, with the news that Europa's surface may contain vast fields of penitentes, there's an added complication.

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