Ice, Ice, Baby

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The approximate natural color appearance of Jupiter's ice-covered Europa. NASA

If you’re like myself and live in a northern area like Chicago, then by now you’re getting tired of temperatures that peak in the single digits. Allow me to give you some perspective; at least the weather isn’t in the range of -370 to -270 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the range of average temperatures on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Just thinking about being there makes me appreciative of the icy winds whipping off of Lake Michigan.

Being on the surface of Europa feels more desolate and chilly than anybody can come close to imagining, with the possible exception of Antarctic scientists. Just try to picture yourself standing on a plateau of ice so cold it feels as hard as granite, surrounded by this surface as far as the eye can see. In the canopy above you is Jupiter, dominating the deep black sky and watching you with its swirling red eye.

This is Europa: a moon whose surface is solely comprised of rock-solid ice, cracked like an eggshell all over its crust, creating deep icy canyons. There is essentially no atmosphere, save for the wisps of oxygen that evaporate off of the surface. The land around you is barren. As amazing as this is, to find the truly incredible beauty of Europa you have to look down. Way, way down.

What’s so amazing about Europa is that there is a good chance that a vast and expansive ocean lays beneath all that ice. Just as our earth has a solid crust with molten magma beneath it, Europa has a similar composition, but with ice and water. The ice is theorized to be anywhere in the range of 10 to 100 kilometers thick. And, tidal forces from Jupiter are believed to be the cause of the ocean. Just as the moon pulls the tides of our ocean back and forth, Jupiter pulls on Europa and energizes the ice, melting it into water. This ocean being shifted and pulled around by the tidal forces could explain the vast cracks in the smooth surface of the moon.

It’s theorized that this ocean could even harbor life. It’s certainly possible when one takes into consideration that life on Earth can handle worse conditions than those on Europa. The oceans of Europa are a harsh place, but species of bacteria and animals on our ocean floor live around steaming volcanic vents, where temperatures can reach 750 degrees Fahrenheit. Life in Europa’s ocean is certainly an exciting possibility.

Europa is an enigma. No probe has ever landed on its surface. Recently, Hubble observed plumes of water jets 200 kilometers high shooting out of Europa’s south pole, and nobody has an explanation for why. Life as we know it could be dwelling deep in its ocean, right in our own solar system. Europa is exciting, dynamic, wild, and more than anything else, cold. All things considered, I’m very happy to be sitting in Chicago without the fear that enormous jets of water could erupt at any second.

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