Credit: Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSSImage processing: Kevin M. Gill CC BY 3.0
Research reveals a new explanation for how the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa rotates at a different rate than its interior. NASA’s Europa Clipper will take a closer look.
NASA scientists have strong evidence that Jupiter’s moon Europa has an internal ocean under its icy outer shell – an enormous body of salty water swirling around the moon’s rocky interior. New computer modeling suggests the water may actually be pushing the ice shell along, possibly speeding up and slowing down the rotation of the moon’s icy shell over time.
Scientists have known that Europa’s shell is probably free-floating, rotating at a different rate than the ocean below and the rocky interior. The new modeling is the first to show that Europa’s ocean currents could be contributing to the rotation of its icy shell.
A key element of the study involved calculating drag – the horizontal force that the moon’s ocean exerts on the ice above it. The research hints at how the power of the ocean flow and its drag against the ice layer could even account for some of the geology seen on Europa’s surface. Cracks and ridges could result from the icy shell slowly stretching and collapsing over time as it is pushed and tugged by the ocean currents.
“Before this, it was known through laboratory experiments and modeling that heating and cooling of Europa’s ocean may drive currents,” said Hamish Hay, a researcher at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study published in JGR: Planets. Hay performed the research while a postdoctoral research associate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Now our results highlight a coupling between the ocean and the rotation of the icy shell that was never previously considered.”