Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the most exciting places in the Solar System. A deep and active ocean is enshrined in an icy crust. The NASA spacecraft Galileo studied this moon in detail in the 1990s and the space agency has released newly reprocessed images showing the cracked ice of Europa like never before.
These three new images were all collected along the same longitude of Europa, on September 26, 1998. The images have enhanced colors to better highlight the complex features present on the surface. Ridges, bands, and small rounded domes adorn the surface of Europa and scientists have a simple name for these areas: chaos terrain.
Reprocessing the images is a painstaking task. Galileo collected black and white images of the moon at high-resolution but also lower resolution images of the same area. Merging the colors of the latter to the quality of the former is tough but crucial to better understand Europa.
The surface of the moon is one of the youngest in the Solar System, estimated to be on average between 40 and 90 million years old. Given that Europa formed 4.6 billion years ago together with the rest of the Solar System, the young surface is an exciting feature.
The chaos terrain, in particular, shows the effect that Jupiter has on the surface, the ocean underneath, and the geothermal processes going on inside the moon. Ridges and bands are formed from ice movements under the strong Jovian tidal influence. Blocks of the surface might have also come loose, rotated, and frozen back in place.
The complexity is yet to be fully clarified but the upcoming NASA Europa Clipper mission will provide ample new data to try to work out where the peculiar properties of Europa’s surface come from, as well as studying the properties of the ocean beneath the ice.
"We've only seen a very small part of Europa's surface at this resolution. Europa Clipper will increase that immensely," said planetary geologist Cynthia Phillips of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, in a statement.
Europa Clipper is expected to launch in 2024 and arrive around Jupiter in 2030.