NASA’s “Remastered” View of Europa is the Best Yet

Europa, Jupiter’s sixth-closest moon, has long been a source of fascination and wonder for astronomers. Not only is it unique amongst its Jovian peers for having a smooth, ice-covered surface, but it is believed that warm, ocean waters exist beneath that crust – which also makes it a strong candidate for extra-terrestrial life.

And now, combining a mosaic of color images with modern image processing techniques, NASA has produced a new version of what is perhaps the best view of Europa yet. And it is quite simply the closest approximation to what the human eye would see, and the next best thing to seeing it up close.

The high-resolution color image, which shows the largest portion of the moon’s surface, was made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo probe. Using the Solid-State Imaging (SSI) experiment, the craft captured these images during it’s first and fourteenth orbit through the Jupiter system, in 1995 and 1998 respectively.

The view was previously released as a mosaic with lower resolution and strongly enhanced color (as seen on the JPL’s website). To create this new version, the images were assembled into a realistic color view of the surface that approximates how Europa would appear to the human eye.

The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
This newly-reprocessed color view of Europa was made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

As shown above, the new image shows the stunning diversity of Europa’s surface geology. Long, linear cracks and ridges crisscross the surface, interrupted by regions of disrupted terrain where the surface ice crust has been broken up and re-frozen into new patterns.

Images taken through near-infrared, green, and violet filters have been combined to produce this view. The images have been corrected for light scattered outside of the image to provide a color correction that is calibrated by wavelength. Gaps in the images have been filled with simulated color based on the color of nearby surface areas with similar terrain types.

These color variations across the surface are associated with differences in geologic feature type and location. For example, areas that appear blue or white contain relatively pure water ice, while reddish and brownish areas include non-ice components in higher concentrations.

The polar regions, visible at the left and right of this view, are noticeably bluer than the more equatorial latitudes, which look more white. This color variation is thought to be due to differences in ice grain size in the two locations.

Artist's concept of the Galileo space probe passing through the Jupiter system. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of the Galileo space probe passing through the Jupiter system.
Credit: NASA

This view of Europa stands out as the color view that shows the largest portion of the moon’s surface at the highest resolution. An earlier, lower-resolution version of the view, published in 2001, featured colors that had been strongly enhanced. Space imaging enthusiasts have produced their own versions of the view using the publicly available data, but NASA has not previously issued its own rendition using near-natural color.

The image also features many long, curving, and linear fractures in the moon’s bright ice shell. Scientists are eager to learn if the reddish-brown fractures, and other markings spattered across the surface, contain clues about the geological history of Europa and the chemistry of the global ocean that is thought to exist beneath the ice.

This is of particular interest to scientists since this supposed ocean is the most promising place in our Solar System, beyond Earth, to look for  present-day environments that are suitable for life. The Galileo mission found strong evidence that a subsurface ocean of salty water is in contact with a rocky seafloor. The cycling of material between the ocean and ice shell could potentially provide sources of chemical energy that could sustain simple life forms.

Future missions to Europa, which could involve anything from landers to space penetrators, may finally answer the question of whether or not life exists beyond our small, blue planet. Picturing this world in all of its icy glory is another small step along that path.

In addition to the newly processed image, JPL has released a new video that explains why this likely ocean world is a high priority for future exploration:

Further Reading: NASA

What are Temperatures Like on Jupiter?

Jupiter, which takes its name from the father of the gods in ancient Roman mythology, is the largest planet in our Solar System. It also has the most moon’s of any solar planet – with 50 accounted for and another 17 awaiting confirmation. It has the most intense surface activity, with storms up to 600 km/h occurring in certain areas, and a persistent anticyclonic storm that is even larger than planet Earth.

And when it comes to temperature, Jupiter maintains this reputation for extremity, ranging from extreme cold to extreme hot. But since the planet has no surface to speak of, being a gas giant, it’s temperature cannot be accurately measured in one place – and varies greatly between its upper atmosphere and core.

Currently, scientists do not have exact numbers for the what temperatures are like within the planet, and measuring closer to the interior is difficult, given the extreme pressure of the planet’s atmosphere. However, scientists have obtained readings on what the temperature is at the upper edge of the cloud cover: approximately -145 degrees C.

Because of this extremely cold temperature, the atmosphere at this level is composed primarily of ammonia crystals and possibly ammonium hydrosulfide – another crystallized solid that can only exist where conditions are cold enough.

However, if one were to descend a little deeper into the atmosphere, the pressure would increases to a point where it is ten times what it is here on Earth. At this altitude, the temperature is thought to increase to a comfortable 21 °C, the equivalent to what we call “room temperature” here on Earth.

Descend further and the hydrogen in the atmosphere becomes hot enough to turn into a liquid and the temperature is thought to be over 9,700 C. Meanwhile, at the core of the planet, which is believed to be composed of rock and even metallic hydrogen, the temperature may reach as high as 35,700°C – hotter than even the surface of the Sun.

Interestingly enough, it may be this very temperature differential that leads to the intense storms that have been observed on Jupiter. Here on Earth, storms are generated by cool air mixing with warm air. Scientists believe the same holds true on Jupiter.

A close-up of Jupiter's great red spot. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Space Science Institute
A close-up of Jupiter’s great red spot, an anticyclonic storm that is larger than Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Space Science Institute

One difference is that the jet streams that drive storms and winds on Earth are caused by the Sun heating the atmosphere. On Jupiter it seems that the jet streams are driven by the planets’ own heat, which are the result of its intense atmospheric pressure and gravity.

During its orbit around the planet, the Galileo spacecraft observed winds in excess of 600 kph using a probe it deployed into the upper atmosphere. However, even at a distance, Jupiter’s massive storms can be seen to be humungous in nature, with some having been observed to grow to more than 2000 km in diameter in a single day.

And by far, the greatest of Jupiter’s storms is known as the Great Red Spot, a persistent anticyclonic storm that has been raging for hundreds of years. At 24–40,000 km in diameter and 12–14,000 km in height, it is the largest storm in our Solar System. In fact, it is so big that Earth could fit inside it four to seven times over.

Given its size, internal heat, pressure, and the prevalence of hydrogen in its composition, there are some who wonder if Jupiter could collapse under its own mass and trigger a fusion reaction, becoming a second star in our Solar System. There are a few reasons why this has not happened, much to the chagrin of science fiction fans everywhere!

This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons
This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons

For starters, despite its mass, gravity and the intense heat it is believed to generate near its core, Jupiter is not nearly massive or hot enough to trigger a nuclear reaction. In terms of the former, Jupiter would have to multiply its current mass by a factor of 80 in order to become massive enough to ignite a fusion reaction.

With that amount of mass, Jupiter would experience what is known as gravitational compression (i.e. it would collapse in on itself) and become hot enough to fuse hydrogen into helium. That is not going to happen any time soon since, outside of the Sun, there isn’t even that much available mass in our Solar System.

Of course, others have expressed concern about the planet being “ignited” by a meteorite or a probe crashing into it – as the Galileo probe was back in 2003. Here too, the right conditions simply don’t exist (mercifully) for Jupiter to become a massive fireball.

While hydrogen is combustible, Jupiter’s atmosphere could not be set aflame without sufficient oxygen for it to burn in. Since no oxygen exists in the atmosphere, there is no chance of igniting the hydrogen, accidentally or otherwise, and turning the planet into a tiny star.

Scientists are striving to better understand the temperature of Jupiter in hopes that they will eventually be able to understand the planet itself. The Galileo probe helped and data from New Horizons went even further. NASA and other space agencies are planning future missions that should bring new data to light.

To learn more about Jupiter, check out this article on how weather storms on Jupiter form quickly. Here’s Hubblesite’s News Releases about Jupiter, and NASA’s Solar System Explorer.

We’ve also recorded an entire show just on Jupiter for Astronomy Cast. Listen to it here, Episode 56: Jupiter, and Episode 57: Jupiter’s Moons.