During a recent flyby, NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured images of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. One of the images, released by NASA this week, provides an up-close look at Europa’s surface features.
Juno has been orbiting the gas giant Jupiter since 2016, but NASA has only recently turned its attention to the planet’s moons. Europa is of particular scientific interest because scientists believe there is a salty ocean beneath the frozen surface of the moon.
If such an ocean exists, as the upcoming Europa Clipper mission will investigate using surface-penetrating radar, it could contain the building blocks for life, if not life itself.
The most recent image was captured during Juno’s flyby of the moon on September 29, when the spacecraft came within about 220 miles of the surface. The image covers a roughly 11,600-square-mile area of Europa, which is dominated by ice grooves and ridges.
It’s a black-and-white photograph taken from about 256 miles above the moon’s surface, and it’s the highest-resolution image of a specific area of the moon ever taken.
The new image adds to the first images from the flyby. According to a recent NASA release, darker splotches on the ice could indicate something beneath the moon’s crust erupting onto the surface.
The white flecks in the image are high-energy particles emitted by the radiation in the moon’s surrounding environment.
“These features are so intriguing,” said Heidi Becker, the lead co-investigator for the camera used to take the image, in the release. “Understanding how they formed – and how they connect to Europa’s history – informs us about internal and external processes shaping the icy crust.”
Though Juno’s investigation began with Jupiter, it has since expanded to four Galilean satellites and the gas giant’s rings, which are not easily visible but were recently captured in images by the Webb Space Telescope.
Juno flew by Ganymede (the solar system’s largest moon) in June 2021, and Io will get its own flyby in 2023.
Juno’s observational targets are expanding rapidly, and it will be replaced in the early 2030s by NASA‘s Europa Clipper, which will use cutting-edge instruments to investigate Europa’s ability to support life.
Europa’s surface may appear hostile in black and white and from 200 miles above, but beneath the ice, the story may be quite different.