Pole Shift on Europa?

Curved features on Jupiter’s moon Europa may indicate that its poles have wandered by almost 90°, a new study reports. Researchers believe the drastic shift in Europa’s rotational axis was likely a result of the build-up of thick ice at the poles. “A spinning body is most stable with its mass farthest from its spin axis,” says Isamu Matsuyama of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. “On Europa, variations in the thickness of its outer shell caused a mass imbalance, so the rotation axis reoriented to a new stable state” An extreme shift like this also suggests the existence of an internal liquid ocean beneath the icy crust.

The research team, led by Dr. Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute and joined by Matsuyama and Dr. Francis Nimmo of the University of California, Santa Cruz, used images from the Voyager, Galileo, and New Horizons spacecraft to map several large arc-shaped depressions that extend more than 500 kilometers across Europa’s surface. With a radius of about 1500 kilometers, Europa is slightly smaller than the Earth’s moon.

By comparing the pattern of the depressions with fractures that would result from stresses caused by a shift in Europa’s rotational axis, the researchers determined that the axis had shifted by approximately 80°. The previous axis of rotation is now located about 10° from the present equator.

Such a change is called “true polar wander” as opposed to apparent polar wander caused by plate tectonics. There is evidence for true polar wander on Earth, and also on Mars and on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. “Our study adds Europa to this list,” says Matsuyama. “It suggests that planetary bodies might be more prone to reorientation than we thought.”

The study also has implications for liquid water inside Europa. Many scientists believe Europa has an extensive subsurface ocean based on spacecraft photos showing a fractured, icy surface. The ocean beneath the crust would be kept liquid by heat generated by tidal forces from Jupiter’s gravity. The presence of heat and water may make life possible, even though the subsurface ocean is cut off from solar energy.

“The large reorientation on Europa required to explain the circular depressions implies that its outer ice shell is decoupled from the core by a liquid layer,” says Matsuyama. “Therefore, our study provides an independent test for the presence of an interior liquid layer.”

Original News Source: EurekAlert

Testing a Europa Probe Prototype


While NASA doesn’t have any definite plans to send a probe to study Jupiter’s moon Europa, many planetary scientists consider the exploration of this enticing moon to be a high priority. Evidence from the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft suggests Europa contains a deep ocean of salty water under an icy outer shell. NASA is, however, helping to fund a prototype of an underwater autonomous vehicle to investigate ice covered lakes here on Earth, to demonstrate if such a vehicle could operate in an environment similar to Europa. The next test of the vehicle will take place Feb. 12-15, 2008 in Lake Mendota on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer, also known as Endurance, will swim untethered under ice, and collect data to create three-dimensional maps of underwater environments. The probe also will look at the conditions in those environments and take samples of microbial life. Later this year, researchers plan to ship the probe to a permanently frozen lake in Antarctica for more operations. The probe is a follow-up to the Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer, a NASA-funded project that completed a series of underwater field tests in Mexico in 2007.

“We’re using extreme environments on Earth as our laboratory,” says Peter Doran, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Ice-covered lakes are good, small-scale analogs to what we might find on Europa.”

Mendota Lake is only 25 meters deep, while the lake in Antarctica, West Lake Bonney is 40 meters deep. Scientists believe that Europa’s ocean could be up to 100 kilometers deep.

Hot water drills will bore a hole for Endurance to enter the water. If all goes well, the probe will be tested again in 2009.

But many hurdles remain before an underwater vehicle could possibly head to Europa. Presently, Endurance is too massive to send on interplanetary travel. Scientists will also have to come up with a way to drill through Europa’s icy crust and lower the sub safely through the ice.

And before a probe would be sent to land on Europa, many scientists feel that an orbiting spacecraft would be the best way to study the moon. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is currently working on a concept called the Europa Explorer which would deliver a low orbit spacecraft to determine the presence (or absence) of a liquid water ocean under Europa’s ice surface. It would also map the surface and subsurface for future exploration.

Original News Sources: NASA Press Release, Washington University Press Release

Making the Case for Europa


Nick had an article last week about a new technique that might help scientists figure out just how deep the oceans on Europa are. Deep oceans with a thin crust might give a rover, or a submarine, a fighting chance to get down to that precious H2O, and sample it for evidence of life. Researchers are seriously discussing the benefits of exploring Europa at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

According to William McKinnon, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo, “We’ve learned a lot about Europa in the past few years.

“Before we were almost sure that there was an ocean, but now the scientific community has come to a consensus that there most certainly is an ocean. We’re ready to take the next step and explore that ocean and the ice shell that overlays it. We have a number of new discoveries and techniques that can help us do that.”

What advances have been made?

There’s the research we talked about; how detailed observations of the Moon’s flexing under Jupiter’s intense gravity, as well as the magnetic variations can tell just how deep the ocean goes.

And new radar sounding techniques have been developed for other spacecraft that would be very useful at Europa. The high-resolution radar system installed on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be able to peer right through an ice shell on Europa, and give researchers a cross section of the ice. It would be able to locate liquid water under and within the shell, and put the controversy to rest forever.

Engineers are also working on future explorers, such as a project called Endurance, developed by Peter Doran, associate professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago and Stone Aerospace. They’ll be testing an exploration vehicle in Wisconsin in February 2008, and then in Antarctica.

This robotic explorer will be able to create three-dimensional maps of the subsurface lakes in Antarctica and even map out the biochemistry in the water. If there’s life there, Endurance will find it.

Obviously, sending a probe like this to Europa is a long, long way off. But people are chipping away at the problem on both ends. Scientists are making the case that Europa is one of the most enticing scientific targets in the Solar System. And engineers are working out the technologies that could actually make the discoveries.

The future for exploration on Europa is looking brighter every day.

Original Source: University of Texas at Austin News Release

Europa’s Ocean: Thick or Thin?


How do you determine the thickness of an ocean that you can’t see, let alone know how salty it is? Europa, the sixth satellite from Jupiter, is thought to have an ocean of liquid water underneath its icy surface. We know this because of its remarkably uncratered surface and the way its magnetic field reacts with that of Jupiter. New results that take into consideration Europa’s interaction with the plasma surrounding Jupiter – in addition to the magnetic field – give us a better picture of the ocean’s thickness and composition. This will help future robotic explorers know how deep they need to tunnel to reach the oceans underneath.

“We know from gravity measurements made by Galileo that Europa is a differentiated body. The most plausible models of Europa’s interior have an H2O-ice layer of thickness 80-170km. However, the gravity measurements tell us nothing about the state of this layer (solid or liquid),” said Dr. Nico Schilling of the Institut für Geophysik und Meteorologie in Köln, Germany.

The water in Europa’s ocean – just like the water in our own ocean – is a good conductor of electricity. When a conductor passes through a magnetic field, electricity is produced, and this electricity has an effect on the magnetic field itself. It’s just like what happens inside an electric generator. This process is called electromagnetic induction, and the intensity of the induction gives a lot of information about the materials involved in the process.

But Europa doesn’t only interact with the magnetic field coming from Jupiter, however; it also has electromagnetic interactions with the plasma surrounding Jupiter, called the magnetospheric plasma. This same thing happens on Earth in a way that is very familiar: Earth has a magnetosphere, and when plasma coming from the Sun interacts with our magnetosphere we see the beautiful Aurora Borealis phenomenon.

This process, happening intermittently as Europa orbits Jupiter, has an effect on the induction field of the subsurface ocean of the moon. By combining these measurements with the previous measurements of the interaction between Europa and Jupiter’s magnetic field, the researchers were able to get a better picture of just how thick and how conductive Europa’s ocean is. Their results were published in a paper titled, Time-varying interaction of Europa with the jovian magnetosphere: Constraints on the conductivity of Europa’s subsurface ocean, which appears in the August 2007 edition of the journal Icarus.

The researchers compared their models of Europa’s electromagnetic induction with the results of Galileo’s magnetic field measurements, and found that the total conductivity of the ocean was about 50,000 Siemens (a measure of electrical conductivity). This is much higher than previous results, which placed the conductivity at 15000 Siemens.

Depending on the composition of the ocean, though, the thickness could be between 25 and 100km, which is also thicker than the previously estimated lower limit of 5km. The less conductive the ocean is, the thicker it must be to account for the measured conductivity, and this depends on the quantity and type of salt found in the ocean, which still remains unknown.

Taking into account the interactions with the magnetospheric plasma are important when studying the composition of planets and moons.

Dr. Schilling said, “The plasma interaction effects the magnetic field measurements, but not e.g. the gravity measurements. So in every case in the Jupiter system, where magnetic field measurements were used to get some informations from the interiors of the moons, the plasma interaction has to be considered. An example is for instance Io, where the first flybys suggested that Io may have an internal dynamo field. It turned out that the measured magnetic field perturbation was not an internal field but was created by the plasma interaction.”

Europa and Io, though, are not the only place where magnetic fields and plasma interactions can tell us about the nature of a planet’s interior; this same method was also used to detect the geysers of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.

“The first hints of an active south polar region came from the magnetic field measurements and the simulations of the plasma interaction, before Cassini actually saw the geysers,” Dr. Schilling said.

With the discovery of entire ecosystems at the bottom of oceans here on Earth – ecosystems entirely cut off from sunlight – the discovery of oceans on Europa gives scientists hope that there could be life there. And this new discovery helps researchers understand what kind of ocean they could be dealing with.

Now, we just have to tunnel down through the shell of ice and look for ourselves.

Source: Icarus

A Submarine for Europa


Many planetary scientists believe that Jupiter’s moon Europa is our solar system’s best contender to share Earth’s distinction of harboring life. Evidence gathered by the Voyager and Galileo spacecrafts suggests Europa contains a deep, possibly warm ocean of salty water under an outer shell of fissured ice. In a paper published in the July 2007 Journal of Aerospace Engineering a British mechanical engineer proposes sending a submarine to explore Europa’s oceans.

Carl T. F. Ross, a professor at the University of Portsmouth in England offers an abstract design of an underwater craft built of a metal matrix composite. He also provides suggestions for suitable power supplies, communication techniques and propulsion systems for such a vessel in his paper, “Conceptual Design of a Submarine to Explore Europa’s Oceans.”

Ross’s paper weighs the options for constructing a submarine capable of withstanding the undoubtedly high pressure within Europa’s deep oceans. Scientists believe that this moon’s oceans could be up to 100 kilometers deep, more than ten times deeper than Earth’s oceans. Ross proposes a 3 meter long cylindrical sub with an internal diameter of 1 meter. He believes that steel or titanium, while strong enough to withstand the hydrostatic pressure, would be unsuitable as the vessel would have no reserve buoyancy. Therefore, the sub would sink like a rock to the bottom of the ocean. A metal matrix or ceramic composite would offer the best combination of strength and buoyancy.

Ross favors a fuel cell for power, which will be needed for propulsion, communications and scientific equipment, but notes that technological advances in the ensuing years may provide better sources for power.

Ross concedes that a submarine mission to Europa won’t occur for at least 15-20 years. Planetary scientist William B. McKinnon agrees.
Artist illustration of a Europa probe. Image credit: NASA/JPL
“It is difficult enough, and expensive, to get back to Europa with an orbiter, much less imagine a landing or an ocean entry,” said McKinnon, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “Sometime in the future, and after we have determined the ice shell thickness, we can begin to seriously address the engineering challenges. For now, it might be best to search for those places where the ocean has come to us. That is, sites of recent eruptions on Europa’s surface, whose compositions can be determined from orbit.”

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is currently working on a concept called the Europa Explorer which would deliver a low orbit spacecraft to determine the presence (or absence) of a liquid water ocean under Europa’s ice surface. It would also map the distribution of compounds of interest for pre-biotic chemistry, and characterize the surface and subsurface for future exploration. “This type of mission,” says McKinnon, “would really allow us to get the hard proof we would all like that the ocean is really there, and determine the thickness of the ice shell and find thin spots if they exist.”

McKinnon added that an orbiter could find “hot spots” that indicate recent geological or even volcanic activity and obtain high-resolution images of the surface. The latter would be needed to plan any successful landing.

Slightly smaller than Earth’s moon, Europa has an exterior that is nearly craterless, meaning a relatively “young” surface. Data from the Galileo spacecraft shows evidence of near-surface melting and movements of large blocks of icy crust, similar to ice bergs or ice rafts on Earth.

While Europa’s midday surface temperatures hover around 130 K (-142 C, -225 degrees F), interior temperatures could be warm enough for liquid water to exist underneath the ice crust. This internal warmth comes from tidal heating caused by the gravitational forces of Jupiter and Jupiter’s other moons which pull Europa’s interior in different directions. Scientists believe similar tidal heating drives the volcanoes on another Jovian moon, Io. Seafloor hydrothermal vents have also been suggested as another possible energy source on Europa. On Earth, undersea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents create environments that sustain colonies of microbes. If similar systems are active on Europa, scientists reason that life might be present there too.

Among scientists there is a big push to get a mission to Europa underway. However this type of mission is competing for funding against NASA’s goal of returning to our own moon with human missions. The proposed Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter (JIMO) a nuclear powered mission to study three of Jupiter’s moons, fell victim to cuts in science missions in NASA’s Fiscal Year 2007 Budget.

Ross has been designing and improving submarines for over 40 years, but this is the first time he’s designed a craft for use anywhere but on Earth.

“The biggest problem that I see with the robot submarine is being able to drill or melt its way through a maximum of 6 km of the ice, which is covering the surface,” said Ross. “However, the ice may be much thinner in some places. It may be that we will require a nuclear pressurized water reactor on board the robot submarine to give us the necessary power and energy to achieve this”

While Ross proposes using parachutes to bring the submarine to Europa’s surface, McKinnon points out that parachutes would not work in Europa’s almost airless atmosphere.

Ross has received very positive responses to his paper from friends and colleagues, he says, including notable British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. Ross says his life has revolved around submarines since 1959 and he finds this new concept of a submarine on Europa to be very exciting.

McKinnon classifies the exploration of Europa as “extremely important.”

“Europa is a place is where we are pretty sure we have abundant liquid water, energy sources, and biogenic elements such as carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, etc,” he said. “Is there life, any kind of life, in Europa’s ocean? Questions don’t get much more profound.”

Written by Nancy Atkinson