New finding adds weight to notion that Europa's icy crust slides over a liquid, subsurface ocean which could harbor conditions for life.
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updated 5/16/2008 6:53:57 PM ET 2008-05-16T22:53:57

The meandering poles of Jupiter's moon Europa etched tell-tale scars across the satellite's icy surface, a new study finds.

Europa's ice-heavy poles shifted almost 90 degrees, from near the current equator to their current north-south alignment, which caused the moon's spin axis to change as well.

"A spinning body is most stable with its mass farthest from its spin axis," said Isamu Matsuyama, planetary scientist at the Carnegie Institution who participated in the study. "On Europa, variations in the thickness of its outer shell caused a mass imbalance, so the rotation axis reoriented to a new stable state."

Stresses from the changing spin axis caused fractures that stretch more than a third of the way across Europa's surface.

Matsuyama and other researchers mapped arc-shaped scars extending more than 310 miles (500 km) across the Europa, using images from NASA's Voyager, Galileo, and — more recently — the Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft that zipped past Jupiter last year. The Jovian moon has a radius of just over 930 miles (1,500 km), making it slightly smaller than Earth's moon.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 The research is detailed in the May 15 issue of the journal Nature.

Europa joins Earth, Mars, and Saturn's icy moon Enceladus as planetary bodies that have experienced "true polar wander" where their spin axis shifted, Matsuyama said.

The new finding adds more weight to the notion that Europa's icy crust slides over a liquid, subsurface ocean which could harbor conditions for life. A similar possibility exists on Saturn's moon Titan, leading NASA and Europe to consider future deep space missions to one or both places.

"The large reorientation on Europa required to explain the circular depressions implies that its outer ice shell is decoupled from the core by a liquid layer," Matsuyama said. "Therefore, our study provides an independent test for the presence of an interior liquid layer."

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