NASA’s Juno spacecraft took images of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa during a recent flyby. One of the photos—released this week by NASA—offers an intimate view of Europa’s surface features.
Juno has orbited the gas giant Jupiter since 2016, but only recently has NASA diverted the spacecraft’s attention to the planet’s moons. Europa is of particular scientific interest because scientists believe a salty ocean lies beneath the moon’s frozen surface.
If such an ocean is there—something the upcoming Europa Clipper mission will investigate using surface-penetrating radar—it could host ingredients for life, if not life itself.
The recent image was taken during Juno’s flyby on September 29, during which the spacecraft came within about 220 miles of the moon’s surface. The image covers a roughly 11,600-square-mile swath of Europa, a region dominated with grooves and ridges in the ice. It’s a black-and-white photo taken from about 256 miles above the surface and is the highest-resolution image taken of a specific portion of the moon.
The new pic builds on the first images released from the flyby. Darker splotches on the ice could indicate something beneath the moon’s crust erupting onto the surface, according to a recent NASA release. White flecks dotting the image are signatures of high-energy particles from the radiation in the moon’s surrounding environment.
“These features are so intriguing,” said Heidi Becker, the lead co-investigator for the camera used to take the image, in the release. “Understanding how they formed – and how they connect to Europa’s history – informs us about internal and external processes shaping the icy crust.”
Though Juno began its focus on Jupiter, its investigation has expanded to that of four Galilean satellites and the gas giant’s rings—not so easily seen, but recently captured in images by the Webb Space Telescope.
Juno flew by Ganymede (the largest moon in the solar system) in June 2021, and in 2023 Io will get its own flyby. Juno is significantly expanding its observational targets and will be supplanted in the early 2030s by NASA’s Europa Clipper, which will investigate Europa’s ability to foster life with state-of-the-art instruments.
Europa’s surface may look pretty hostile in black and white and from 200 miles up, but beneath the ice, it could be an entirely different story.