Simulation experiments to study the crust of icy moons

Figure: processed image of Europe, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. ©NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.

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Researchers from the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB, CSIC-INTA), in collaboration with the Rey Juan Carlos University of Madrid, have simulated in the laboratory the geological processes that may be taking place in the icy crusts of some moons of the Solar System, like the jovian Europe. Thanks to the technology of the CAB's Planetary Environment Simulation Laboratory, it has been possible to simulate cryomagmatic processes whose direct observation is inaccessible.

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Europe, one of Jupiter's Galilean moons, is one of the main objectives of astrobiology. It is considered to possess a global ocean of liquid water beneath its surface and an icy crust, composed mostly of geologically young water ice, which shows that it is an active planetary body with a potentially subsurface environment habitable.

On its surface have been found a variety of structures that could come from that ocean below the surface and that would have arisen as a result of a process of cryomagmatism. On Earth, magmas are mainly composed of silicates, while in icy moons it is liquid water that plays magma in these environments at such low temperatures. From a physical point of view, magmatism is a process resulting from the release of energy from a planetary body. In the case of Europe, this process takes place at low temperatures, hence it is called cryomagmatism.

A scientific team led by the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) has simulated at laboratory the cryomagmatic processes that can take place in the crusts of icy moons. Camera simulation is a tool of study of great importance in Planetary Sciences because the deep environment where these processes occur is not accessible to direct observation. Specifically, the team has been able to simulate the formation and destabilization by thermal pulses of cryomagmatic chambers located up to a depth of 3 km from the surface. Researchers have studied the coexistence of different mineral phases, such as clatrates, hydrated salts and water ice, and also the effects that destabilization can have on the surface. Phase separation and volume changes create instabilities in the cortex that can be reflected in the formation of domes or collapses, depending on the initial chemical composition. The results of these simulations have just been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

"Our instruments have allowed us to quantify pressure and temperature gradients, as well as study in detail the various mineral textures that form in the conditions of the crust of Europe," explains Victoria Muñoz-Iglesias, researcher at the CAB and lead author of the study. "There are very few laboratories in the world that have the necessary equipment to carry out such a detailed study of this type of experimental simulation," he adds. The technology available at the CAB's Planetary Environment Simulation Laboratory has enabled a thorough analysis of samples, both texturally and by Raman spectroscopy. In addition, pressure and temperature have been monitored using sensors placed in direct contact with the sample.

These experiments have great value for the scientific community. On the one hand, because of its novel character and, on the other, to contribute to improve the understanding of the petrology of the bark of the icy moons.


 

Fuente: UCC-CAB

 

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