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Shaking Things Up: How Earthquakes Created the Enigmatic Plains on Jupiter and Saturn’s Moons

Clipper Mission

The moons of Jupiter and Saturn are some of the most intriguing objects in our solar system, with their icy surfaces and mysterious features. One such feature is the vast plains that stretch across their landscapes, which have long puzzled astronomers and planetary scientists.

Earthquakes Linked to Surprisingly Smooth Landscapes on Icy Moons

A New NASA Study Sheds Light on Moons’ Mysterious Plains

A recent NASA study provides insight into how quakes could be the driving force behind the enigmatic smooth terrain on Jupiter and Saturn’s ice-covered moons.

Geologically Active Moons and Moonquakes

Many of the ice-covered moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn are known for their geological activity. The immense gravity of these gas giants causes stretching and pulling forces on their orbiting bodies, leading to moonquakes that can fracture their crusts and surfaces. New research reveals how these quakes may prompt landslides that result in remarkably smooth terrain.

Quakes, Landslides, and Evolving Moon Surfaces

Published in Icarus, the study explores the connection between quakes and landslides, offering fresh perspectives on the development of icy moon surfaces and textures. Common features on the surfaces of icy moons like Europa, Ganymede, and Enceladus include steep ridges surrounded by flat, smooth areas. Scientists have speculated that these spots emerge from liquid flowing out of icy volcanoes. However, the mechanisms behind this process, given the frigid and hostile surface conditions, remain unclear.

A Simple Explanation: Shaking, Sliding, and Smoothing

The study presents a straightforward explanation that does not involve surface liquids. Researchers measured the dimensions of the steep ridges, thought to be tectonic fault scarps, which form when the surface breaks along a fault line and one side drops. By applying these measurements to seismic models, they estimated the strength of past moonquakes and discovered that they could be powerful enough to lift debris that then cascades downhill, spreading out and smoothing the landscape.

Europa Clipper: A Future Boost to Research

NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission, set to launch in 2024, will significantly enhance this research by providing imagery and scientific data. The spacecraft will reach Jupiter in 2030, orbit the gas giant, and conduct about 50 flybys of Europa. The mission’s nine science instruments will investigate whether Europa, believed to harbor a deep internal ocean beneath an outer ice shell, has conditions suitable for life.

High-Resolution Images and Understanding Geological Processes

High-resolution images from the Europa Clipper mission will help scientists determine the power of past moonquakes. Researchers will use these findings to comprehend whether quakes have shifted ice and other surface materials and to what extent. Similarly, images from the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission will offer insights into Europa’s neighboring Jovian moon, Ganymede.

Exploring the Astrobiological Potential of Icy Moons

Europa Clipper’s primary science goal is to identify potential life-supporting locations beneath the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. The mission’s detailed exploration will aid scientists in better understanding the astrobiological potential for habitable worlds beyond Earth.

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