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Venice Update

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Europa’s Heaving Ice Might Make More Heat than Scientists Thought


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Jupiter’s moon Europa is under a constant gravitational assault. As it orbits, Europa’s icy surface heaves and falls with the pull of Jupiter’s gravity, creating enough heat, scientists think, to support a global ocean under the ice—an ocean that could be a habitat for life.

Now, experiments here on Earth involving the flexing and compressing of ice, done by geoscientists from Brown and Columbia universities, suggest that this flexing process, called tidal dissipation, could create far more heat in Europa’s ice—resulting in a thinner ice shell—than scientists had previously assumed.

The largest Jovian moons—Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto—were first discovered by Galileo in the early 1600s. When NASA sent spacecraft to Jupiter in the 1970s and 1990s, those moons proved to be full of surprises.

“Scientists had expected to see cold, dead places, but right away they were blown away by their striking surfaces,” said Christine McCarthy, a faculty member at Columbia University who led this new research as a graduate student at Brown. “There was clearly some sort of tectonic activity—things moving around and cracking. There were also places on Europa that look like melt-through or mushy ice.”

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