Space mission warning: the sharp ice on Jupiter's moon Europa

Jupiter moon mission may be hampered by giant ice shards, scientists warn

Jupiter moon mission may be hampered by giant ice shards, scientists warn

Scientists from the University of Cardiff say shards of ice up to 15m (50ft) high could be dotted all over the moon's surface.

Any robotic spacecraft landing on the moon will have to navigate its way around lethal obstacles, a new study suggests. We know it's frozen ice, but not what condition the outermost surface is in, and if the researchers are right and there's sharp blades and spikes of rock-hard ice, sending a lander down could be an incredibly tricky task.

Cold, dry, and still air.

These unique formations occur when ice remains in direct sunlight for a period of time, causing patches to transform from a solid into a gas, resulting in "sublimation-sculpted blades", The Verge noted.

Europa however has the flawless conditions necessary for penitentes to form more uniformly - its surface is dominated by ice; it has the thermal conditions needed for ice to sublime without melting; and there is very little variation in the angle in which the sun shines on the surface.

Conditions on Europa may be ideal for "penitentes" to form, which are spiky, bladed ice formations found on Earth at higher elevations such as the Andes Mountains. According to the models, Europa's penitentes are capable of growing to around 15m tall, with a spacing of about 7.5m between each one.

"Beneath the icy surface of Europa is perhaps the most promising place to look for present-day environments suitable for life", NASA said. But the scientists of Cardiff University warned that located on Jupiter's moon of ice will kill any mission before it landed. It is believed a landing mission could follow soon after.

"The presence of sharp, blade-like structures towering to nearly 15 metres high would make any potential landing mission to Europa extremely precarious", he added. "Although available images of Europa have insufficient resolution to detect surface roughness at the multi-meter scale, radar and thermal data are consistent with our interpretation".

Sometime in the early 2020s NASA is planning on launching an orbiter to Europa called the Europa Clipper.