Scientists have a new theory about the distribution of oxygen and water in Europa's oceans. Credit: NASA

Icy Shell of Jupiter’s Moon, Europa, Spins with Ocean Currents

Europa, one of Jupiter's largest moons, has long been a focus of scientific study due to the possibility of an internal ocean beneath its icy exterior. Recent research suggests that the ocean currents within Europa's ocean may be contributing to the rotation of its icy shell. This development has significant implications for our understanding of the moon's geology and may even be detectable through measurements taken by NASA's upcoming Europa Clipper mission.


Based on strong evidence gathered by NASA scientists, Jupiter’s moon Europa is believed to have a massive, salty ocean swirling beneath its icy exterior. Recent computer modeling has led researchers to speculate that the water may play a role in moving the ice shell, potentially influencing the moon’s rotation and causing changes in its speed over long periods of time. For years, scientists have speculated that Jupiter’s moon Europa has a subsurface ocean beneath its frozen outer layer. Recent research by NASA provides strong evidence that this hypothesis is correct. What’s more, new computer simulations suggest that the ocean might be influencing the icy shell’s rotation.

Europa’s icy shell is likely free-floating

According to the study, Europa’s icy shell is likely free-floating, rotating at a different pace than the ocean underneath it and the rocky interior. The recent computer modeling is the first to suggest that the moon’s ocean currents might contribute to the rotation of the icy shell. The researchers calculated drag, the horizontal force that the moon’s ocean applies to the ice above it, which helped them better understand how the ocean flow’s power and drag against the ice layer could explain some of the geology visible on Europa’s surface. The study suggests that the ridges and cracks on the surface could result from the icy shell’s slow stretching and collapsing as it gets pushed and tugged by the ocean currents.


Study results

“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.”


Europa Clipper mission

The upcoming Europa Clipper mission by NASA could potentially determine the precise speed of the icy shell’s rotation by using gathered measurements. Scientists could compare the images captured by the Europa Clipper with the ones collected in the past by NASA’s Galileo and Voyager missions to examine the positions of ice surface features. This examination may allow them to determine if the position of the icy shell on the moon has shifted over time.

Long debated

Planetary scientists have long debated whether the icy shell of Europa rotates faster than its deep interior. Initially, scientists attributed this discrepancy to an external force: Jupiter. They proposed that the gas giant’s gravity pulls on Europa, which in turn tugs on the moon’s shell, causing it to rotate slightly faster. However, recent computer modeling suggests that the ocean currents within Europa’s internal ocean may actually be contributing to the rotation of the icy shell. This could potentially explain the geologic features observed on the moon’s surface. Additionally, upcoming measurements gathered by NASA’s Europa Clipper mission may provide further insight into the speed and position of Europa’s icy shell.

Using techniques developed to study Earth’s oceans

To investigate the mysteries of Europa’s ocean, scientists used advanced techniques developed to study Earth’s oceans. They utilized NASA supercomputers to create large-scale models of the moon’s ocean and studied the complex patterns of water circulation and the effects of heating and cooling. Europa’s ocean is believed to be heated from within due to radioactive decay and tidal heating in the moon’s rocky core. Just like water in a pot on a stove, warm water from Europa’s interior rises to the top of the ocean. These models provide a better understanding of how the ocean circulates and how it could potentially impact the rotation of the moon’s icy shell.


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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