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Landed missions: An essential link between remote sensing and in situ processes for icy world surface exploration
  • Cynthia Phillips
Cynthia Phillips
JPL / NASA / Caltech

Corresponding Author:cynthia.b.phillips@jpl.nasa.gov

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Remote sensing observations are our primary method of studying planetary surfaces, and in the inner solar system, in situ exploration quickly provided ground truth to these remote sensing observations. Our view of the surface appearance of worlds like the Moon, Mars, and even Venus has grown in tandem with our understanding of the large-scale structure from remote sensing. However, our knowledge of the icy worlds of the outer solar system is based solely on decades of remote sensing observations without any in situ surface data to help understand how geological processes are manifest on these worlds. The surfaces of icy worlds like Europa are likely to be truly alien in appearance, dominated by processes such as impact gardening, sputtering, sintering, and other types of physical and chemical weathering that act together in ways we have never yet observed in situ. Remote sensing has revealed that Europa’s surface consists of an icy layer, exposed to the vacuum of space at cryogenic temperatures. The airless rocky Moon may be the best landed analog for Europa’s surface, but the Moon is an old, battered world covered with impact craters, which have gardened the surface to a highly-mixed regolith depth of 5-15 meters overlying kilometers of broken-up megaregolith. Europa’s young surface, approximately tens of millions of years old, likely has a gardening depth on the scale of centimeters up to a meter (Costello et al., AGU Fall Meeting, 2019). The rocky Moon is also compositionally different from icy Europa, and the thermal and radiolytic processes that shape the texture of the uppermost surface of an icy body have no rocky analog. As study of icy worlds has continued on the basis of remote sensing data only, multiple competing models exist for the formation of various surface features. Follow-up flyby and orbital missions may not be able to resolve these situations even with higher-resolution remote sensing data and digital elevation models. Images taken by an in situ surface lander on an icy world such as Europa, coupled with ground truth compositional and other measurements, will be essential to our understanding of how geologic processes work on these worlds. A mission such as a Europa Lander is the necessary next step, and will revolutionize our ability to interpret remote sensing data from myriad other bodies in the outer solar system.