Science

Behold! NASA spacecraft takes a stunning closeup of Jupiter's moon Europa

Voila! Europa's topography reveals itself to NASA's Juno mission.

Let’s get reacquainted with Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

NASA released its first close-up look at the icy world in 22 years. While there’s no shortage of fascinating objects around the Solar System’s largest planet, few have astronomers as excited as Europa.

Our current understanding of the moon suggests it’s varnished in a top layer of ice where water vapor spouts up from a subsurface ocean. In a series of new images published Thursday, September 29, software developer Björn Jónsson and NASA transformed Juno spacecraft data into alluring visuals.

The NASA spacecraft came within about 219 miles (352 kilometers) of Europa’s surface when it flew past the moon on Thursday at 5:36 a.m. Eastern. “This is only the third close pass in history below 310 miles (500 kilometers) altitude and the closest look any spacecraft has provided at Europa since Jan. 3, 2000, when NASA’s Galileo came within 218 miles (351 kilometers) of the surface,” NASA officials wrote in a image description. The first probe to capture a close look was Voyager 2 in July 1979.

NASA captured this up-close view of Jupiter’s moon Europa on September 29, 2022. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SWRI/MSSS

Europa’s equator, called Annwn Regio, is populated with ridges and troughs. They pop out in NASA’s new imagery because, as the space agency explains, there was “enhanced contrast between light and shadow” along the nightside boundary, called the terminator. “Rugged terrain features are easily seen,” officials add, “including tall shadow-casting blocks.” They also think the oblong-shaped pit near the terminator might be a degraded impact crater.

Jónsson also published an image of Europa, shared online via Twitter.

“A very early and preliminary version of Europa image PJ45_1 obtained by @NASAJuno earlier today (Sept 29, 2022),” Jónsson writes in the tweet accompanying the image.

“This shouldn't be very far from Europa's true color; I expect to improve the color later with more careful processing though. North is up.”

No doubt that Europa is ripe with science potential. NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper mission in October 2024 to determine if the moon harbors conditions suitable for life. For now, the best data on Jupiter comes from Juno. The spacecraft is now in its extended mission, and will continue until September 2025.

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