It might even be possible, using measurements gathered by NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission, to determine with precision how fast the icy shell rotates. When scientists compare images gathered by Europa Clipper with those captured in the past by NASA’s Galileo and Voyager missions, they will be able to examine locations of ice surface features and potentially determine if the position of the moon’s icy shell has changed over time.
For decades, planetary scientists have debated whether Europa’s icy shell might be rotating faster than the deep interior. But rather than tying it to the ocean’s movement, scientists focused on an outside force: Jupiter. They theorized that as the gas giant’s gravity pulls on Europa, it also tugs on the moon’s shell and causes it to spin slightly faster.
“To me, it was completely unexpected that what happens in the ocean’s circulation could be enough to affect the icy shell. That was a huge surprise,” said co-author and Europa Clipper Project Scientist Robert Pappalardo of JPL. “And the idea that the cracks and ridges we see on Europa’s surface could be tied to the circulation of the ocean below – geologists don’t usually think, ‘Maybe it’s the ocean doing that.’”
Europa Clipper, now in its assembly, test, and launch operations phase at JPL, is set to launch in 2024. The spacecraft will begin orbiting Jupiter in 2030, and will use its suite of sophisticated instruments to gather science data as it flies by the moon about 50 times. The mission aims to determine if Europa, with its deep internal ocean, has conditions that could be suitable for life.