The Jupiter will kill any mission NASA’s search for life, scientists warn

The moon is on the list for possible space exploration. Pic NASA

The presence of the penitentes - some reaching 15m into the sky - could "pose a hazard to a future lander on Europa", the researchers write in the new study.

The blades of sharp ice on Jupiter's moon Europa are called "penitentes". Astronomers didn't know what this meant, only that it suggested something weird was going on in Europa's ice.

Europe is one of the most promising places to look for extraterrestrial life in the Solar system, because under the moon's surface may hide an ocean of liquid water.

"The presence of sharp, blade-like structures towering to nearly 15 metres high would make any potential landing mission to Europa extremely precarious", he added.

They form through a process of sublimation that allows ice to turn directly into water vapour without melting into a liquid first.

Known as "penitentes", the formations are sharp-edged blades and spikes that point towards the mid-day sun.

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A team led by scientists at the University of Cardiff predicts that shards of ice up to 50ft tall could be scattered across Europa's surface. Those conditions include a surface covered in ice, ideal temperatures, other environmental factors to support sublimation, and a consistent angle of incoming sunlight.

The research is reported in the journal Nature Geoscience. Its surface is mainly ice and it has the thermal conditions required for ice to sublime without melting. (The cameras on spacecraft that have flown past Europa so far just haven't been sharp-eyed enough to spot the features.) And there is some chance that incoming radiation from Jupiter would smooth out jaggedness on the Jupiter-facing side of the icy world.

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them", said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, at NASA Headquarters.

The icy spikes are likely to be more common around Europa's equatorial regions, according to the study.

Excitingly, the Europa Clipper mission may be a forerunner to a landing mission on the Jovian moon, in which a probe would drill through the icy surface and plunge into the dark ocean beneath.

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