Bizarre Underwater Snow Gives Clues About the Icy Shell of Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Underwater Snow in Antarctica

Mounds of snow-like frazil ice under the Antarctic ice shelf. According to research from UT Austin, Europa’s ice shell could be made of the same stuff. Credit: © Helen Glazer 2015, from the project “Walking in Antarctica” (

Below the thick icy crust of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft, which will use radar to scan beneath the ice shell to see if Europa’s ocean could be hospitable to life. The new information is important because salt trapped in the ice can affect what and how deep the radar will see into the ice shell. Being able to predict what the ice is made of will help scientists make sense of the data.
The study was led by The University of Texas at Austin, which is also leading the development of Europa Clipper’s ice-penetrating radar instrument. Knowing what kind of ice Europa’s shell is made of will also help determine the salinity and habitability of its ocean. The study was published in the August edition of the journal Astrobiology.

Europa Clipper Spacecraft Illustration

An illustration of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft flying by Jupiter’s moon Europa. The spacecraft, which is planned to launch in 2024, will carry an ice-penetrating radar instrument developed by scientists at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“When we’re exploring Europa, we’re interested in the salinity and composition of the ocean, because that’s one of the things that will govern its potential habitability or even the type of life that might live there,” said the study’s lead author Natalie Wolfenbarger, a graduate student researcher at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) in the UT Jackson School of Geosciences. 

Europa is a rocky world that is surrounded by a global ocean and a miles-thick ice shell. It is about the size of the Earth’s moon. Previous research indicates the temperature, pressure, and salinity of Europa’s ocean nearest to the ice is similar to what you would find beneath an ice shelf in Antarctica.

Knowing this, the current research investigated the two distinct processes by which water freezes under ice shelves: congelation ice and frazil ice. Congelation ice grows directly from under the ice shelf. Frazil ice forms as ice flakes in supercooled seawater which float upwards through the water, settling on the bottom of the ice shelf.

Both ways make ice that’s less salty than seawater….

Read More: Bizarre Underwater Snow Gives Clues About the Icy Shell of Jupiter’s Moon Europa

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