Radiation map provides insight into Europa's surface

A new study shows the regions on Europa that are most likely to harbor life.
By Joseph Scalise | Nov 22, 2018
New mapping techniques used on Jupiter's icy moon Europa show where astronomers should look for signs of life, a new study published inNature Astronomyreports

Scientists have spent years studying Europa. Though there are several reasons for that, the interest mainly comes from NASA's Galileo mission in the 1990's, which revealed the small moon likely had an ocean beneath its icy shell.

The presence of water makes it one of the best places in our solar system to search for life. However, as radiation from Jupiter constantly blasts the small body, it is hard to determine exactly where any organisms could potentially exist.

To shed light on that conundrum, a team of researchers from various U.S. institutions created the most detailed model of Europe to date. They did that by examining the way Jupiter's radiation affects the celestial body.

"If we want to understand what's going on at the surface of Europa and how that links to the ocean underneath, we need to understand the radiation," said lead author Tom Nordheim, a researcher atNASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, according to Phys.org. "When we examine materials that have come up from the subsurface, what are we looking at? Does this tell us what is in the ocean, or is this what happened to the materials after they have been radiated?"

The team used data gathered from Galileo's flybys of Europa and electron measurements from NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft to take a close look at the electrons hitting Europa's service. That revealed how much radiation changes from location to location and showed that the highest concentrations are in zones around the equator.

On the map, such areas show up as oval-shaped regions that cover more than half of the moon.

This information is important because astronomers now know how to find the areas that are least affected by radiation. That could help future Europa flybys and enable spacecraft to avoid areas that are unlikely to host life.

In that way, the studygives brand new insight into Europa's surface and will likely help astronomers better plan orbital paths that will only pass by regions with low radiation levels.

"This is the first prediction of radiation levels at each point on Europa's surface and is important information for future Europa missions," said study co-author Chris Paranicas, a researcher from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, in a statement.

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