Will astronauts ever be able to go ice-skating on Europa? (Intermediate)

The surface of Europa is mostly water ice, so in terms of composition, there is water ice that astronauts could skate on.

Europa's surface is relatively smooth, so there should be a large enough expanse with no cracks or craters that could be turned into an ice rink. The ice would have to be smoothed, though - just like many frozen-over ponds are too rough to skate on, Europa's surface is probably far too bumpy to skate on. After the ice is smoothed (imagine transporting a zamboni to Europa!), ice skating might work. Why just might? It used to be thought that ice skating works because the pressure of the skate blade on the ice melts a thin layer of water that the skate slides on. Recent research, however, has shown that this isn't actually how it works. According to the old way of explaining ice skating, it wouldn't be possible on Europa because the temperature is low enough the ice couldn't be melted by the pressure of the skate. However, this new concept shows that ice skating is possible even at very low temperatures.

So if ice is still slippery at the very low temperature of Europa, which is about 100 K, then, technically, ice skating is possible. Imagine how high you could jump in Europa's gravity, which is only 1.31 m/s2 (compared to Earth's 9.8 m/s2) - maybe an octuple axel?

Now comes the question of whether astronauts will ever get to Europa. The answer is not any time soon, but maybe far in the future. Right now, the next mission planned to explore Europa is the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, which would launch in 2011. The next destination for a manned spacecraft is Mars, or back to the Moon. After that is accomplished, a manned mission to the Galilean Satellites may be planned. But it would be very expensive and technologically challenging.

About the Author

Cathy Jordan

Cathy got her Bachelors degree from Cornell in May 2003 and her Masters of Education in May 2005. She did research studying the wind patterns on Jupiter while at Cornell. She is now an 8th grade Earth Sciences teacher in Natick, MA.

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