Jupiter’s Europa moon is chockful of water and Galileo has just captured a stunning image of one of its icy regions, named after Ireland’s Connemara countryside due to its rugged landscape.
Actually called Conamara Chaos – we’re not sure where the spelling of Connemara got changed, or why even – it is essentially just one region of the moon’s chaotic terrain.
It’s assumed that Europa is mostly rock, however scientists are adamant that water exists there, pooled in underground lakes or layers of slush, with vast quantities more lurking even deeper still in the form of a giant subsurface ocean.
This false-colour image from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft looks incredible. The long criss-crossing grooves etched into the shattered chunks of ice are a perfect example of “chaos terrain” – a feature seen most prominently in our solar system on Europa, Mars and Mercury.
No one truly knows why the terrain looks this way, although NASA are hard at work creating a terrifying spacecraft to find out about similar instances on Mars.
One of the concepts the space agency is investigating – to help further scientific knowledge of our solar system – includes what NASA calls a soft-robotic rover that “would resemble an eel”.
However, it looks far more like a terrifying robot squid hellbent on the eventual destruction of mankind.
The two most prominent theories behind how Europa gained its Burren/Connemara-styled ruggedness relate to water.
One possibility is fast-moving impactors that smash through the moon’s brittle crust. As a liquid layer lies immediately beneath the crust, the shards are more mobile and can refreeze in different configurations, creating a fractured terrain with young scars carved into the icy plains.
Another suggestion is that Europa harbours an intricate system of shallow subsurface lakes. Instead of an object slamming into the Jovian moon, a lake system could influence and stress the crust from below to cause the thin ice sheets to fracture and collapse.
It is the latter that, we hope, NASA will ultimately discover with a robot squid. Although the ESA will be first there, sending its own probes to dig into the surface and finally reveal what lurks beneath.
ESA’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (Juice) mission arrives in the Jovian system in 2030. Alongside detailed studies of Jupiter itself, Juice will explore and characterise three of the gas giant’s potentially habitable icy moons: Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. The mission is in development, on track for launch in 2022.
And here’s an amazing image of Connemara, via Tom Fahy on Flickr, by way of comparison.