Research on the Geological Activity of Icy Moons Could Help Future Space Probe Missions

Rebecca Jean T.
6 min readMar 4, 2024

Icy moons, like those orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, have become a popular talking point in astronomy due to their underground liquid oceans. Recently, planetary scientists have been gearing up in preparation for the next decade, which promises to bring new research seeking to understand these elusive oceans and their potential habitable conditions.

Two thirds of Ganymede’s surface on a black background. Darker and lighter gray regions streak across the surface. Bright patches of material surround craters.
Jupiter’s moon Ganymede taken by Juno during a flyby in 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.

Icy Moons May Contain Habitable Conditions

For decades, astronomers have been dreaming about visiting the distant moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Several of these planets’ larger moons have frozen surfaces, but evidence strongly points towards deep liquid oceans lying under their icy tops. We can’t help but ask, “What is under there? Is it possible for aquatic alien life to thrive in these cold ocean moons?” Europa is particularly famous, with many science fiction stories dedicated to imagining the types of civilizations that might exist there.

While most scientists think the likelihood of advanced civilizations on these water worlds is pretty slim, if not impossible, it could be possible (albeit statistically unlikely) that microscopic life forms are swimming in the waters of one or multiple icy moons right now. Still, these potentially habitable locations are of particular interest to planetary scientists wanting to gain insight into the types of conditions necessary for life to begin. All we know right now is Earth, so there is a lot of room to learn.

Unfortunately, we have not been able to study these icy moons as much as most astronomers would like. In order to study a distant moon, there are two notable hurdles to face. The first hurdle to directly studying the moons of Jupiter and Saturn is getting there, the second is landing there. Several probes have conducted flybys of some of these moons, including NASA’s Galileo and Juno spacecraft visiting Jupiter, and Cassini visiting Saturn. Only one, Cassini’s Huygens Probe, has ever landed on a moon other than our own. The main issue preventing us from sending probes to orbit around and land on Jupiter and Saturn’s moons is distance.

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Rebecca Jean T.

Published author on NASA’s Radio Jove project. Researching science topics to deliver to you in bite-sized stories.