Shards of ice 15 metres high could exist on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, posing a threat to landing probes, scientists say.
The moon, covered by an ice-encrusted ocean of salty water, has a habitat that may support life. It is high on the list of targets for future space missions.
Any robotic spacecraft landing on the moon will have to navigate its way around the obstacles, a new study suggests. A team led by scientists at Cardiff University predicts shards of ice could be scattered across the surface.
Known as “penitentes”, the formations are sharp-edged blades and spikes that point towards the mid-day sun.
They form through a process of sublimation, which allows ice to turn directly into water vapour without melting. When lumps of ice sublimate, the shards are left behind.
Dr Daniel Hobley, from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said: “The unique conditions of Europa present both exciting exploratory possibilities and potentially treacherous danger. The presence of sharp, blade-like structures would make any potential landing mission to Europa extremely precarious.
“We hope studies like ours will help the engineers to develop innovative ways of delivering landers safely.”
The research is reported in the journal ‘Nature Geoscience’.