Show Hide image

Look at this amazing picture of Jupiter's moon Europa

This colourised picture of Europa is just beautiful.

It's called "Reddish Bands on Europa". Sunlight is coming in from the right; the blueish-green sections are water ice, while the red bands that look like a river and its tributaries is ice containing salts of sulfuric acid and magnesium sulfate. The bands do not flow, despite appearances - they are all part of Europa's frozen outer shell, mostly pure, which has cracked and shifted to expose the darker layer beneath.

It's centred on 2.9 degrees south latitude and 234.1 degrees west longitude, which (assuming Nasa is just stating the longitude strangely, as usually you only go up to 180 degrees) on Earth would be roughly where the Indonesian island of Siau is located. It covers a square roughly 163 by 167 kilometres, or about twice the land area of Manhattan.

This picture was not taken recently. Galileo - a Nasa probe which studied the Jovian system from 1995 to 2003, the first probe to do so - took the picture above in December of 1997 during a flyby of Europa. This is a colourised version, released this week by Nasa (you can see the original monochrome version here, covering an area almost twice as big), and the colour gives us a striking hint at what might be beneath the surface of the moon. In Nasa's words:

The reddish material is associated with the broad band in the center of the image, as well as some of the narrower bands, ridges, and disrupted chaos-type features. It is possible that these surface features may have communicated with a global subsurface ocean layer during or after their formation.

Europa is likely the place where we find extraterrestrial life within the Solar System, if we find it at all. Radiation from Jupiter powers plate tectonics which, in turn, leads to volcanism which, in turn, means a steady recycling of minerals and heat throughout the vast ocean that covers it. Deep sea vents there, as on Earth, might be home to simple bacteria-like organisms. Most of what we know about Europa came from Galileo, and it's remarkable that we gathered so much information that we're still digging through it today for further clues about what conditions there are like.

And yet. Look at that image. It has the strange shimmer of a still from a VHS tape, and the look of clay under a microscope. It is undoubtedly an alien world, made more alien through the artefacts of colourisation and the passage of time. And it is gorgeous, isn't it?

The European Space Agency will be launching Juice (the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer) in 2022, another probe that will fly past Europa (and Ganymede, and Callisto) for further study; Nasa may launch a robotic lander aimed at Europa around the same time.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon