Thick or Thin Ice Shell on Europa?
Scientists are all but certain that Europa has an ocean underneath its icy surface, but they do not know how thick this ice might be. This artist's concept illustrates two possible cut-away views through Europa's ice shell. In both, heat escapes, possibly volcanically, from Europa's rocky mantle and is carried upward by buoyant oceanic currents. If the heat from below is intense and the ice shell is thin enough (left), the ice shell can directly melt, causing what are called "chaos" on Europa, regions of what appear to be broken, rotated and tilted ice blocks. On the other hand, if the ice shell is sufficiently thick (right), the less intense interior heat will be transferred to the warmer ice at the bottom of the shell, and additional heat is generated by tidal squeezing of the warmer ice. This warmer ice will slowly rise, flowing as glaciers do on Earth, and the slow but steady motion may also disrupt the extremely cold, brittle ice at the surface.
Europa is no larger than Earth's moon, and its internal heating stems from its eccentric orbit about Jupiter, seen in the distance. As tides raised by Jupiter in Europa's ocean rise and fall, they may cause cracking, additional heating and even venting of water vapor into the airless sky above Europa's icy surface.
Artwork by Michael Carroll.
A larger version of this image is available on NASA's Planetary Photojournal.