Un-Earthly Cold: Scientists Create Exotic “Outer Space” Ice

Europa Clipper Spacecraft Illustration

ORNL and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists studied the formation of amorphous ice like the exotic ice found in interstellar space and on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory successfully created amorphous ice, similar to ice in interstellar space and on icy worlds in our solar system. They documented that its disordered atomic behavior is unlike any ice on Earth.

The findings could help interpret data from future NASA missions such as Europa Clipper, which will assess the habitability of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

Exotic "Outer Space" Ice

Scientists created this exotic “outer space” ice by freezing a stream of heavy water (D2O) molecules
on a sapphire plate that is cooled to about -414° F (-248° C) in a vacuum chamber. Credit: ORNL/Genevieve Martin

Using the Spallation Neutron Source’s SNAP instrument, the scientists replicated the cold vacuum of space and added a few molecules at a time of heavy water to a plate cooled to 25 Kelvin (-248° C) to produce amorphous ice. They then used neutron scattering to observe the ice’s structural changes at varying temperatures before it transitioned to crystalline ice.

“Amorphous water ice is ubiquitous in the universe, yet isn’t well understood. Our data could help understand exotic ice forms in our solar system and beyond,” said ORNL’s Chris Tulk.

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