Sciency Words: Linea

Sciency Words MATH

When Voyager 1 trained its camera on the moons of Jupiter, scientists back on Earth had no idea what to expect. Turned out they were right. Voyager was snapping photos of geological features unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Which meant it was time to make up some new sciency words!


Europa has the youngest, smoothest-looking surface of any object in the Solar System.

Ag04 Europa Blush

But as you can see in the totally legit Voyager 1 image above, Europa’s icy blue surface is not without blemish.

It’s crisscrossed with cracks and fissures that appear to be filled with some sort of reddish-brown substance. Astronomers adopted the term linea (plural lineae) to describe these features. This was not astronomers at their most creative or imaginative; linea is just the Latin word for line.

Europa has a subsurface ocean of liquid water. There might be alien sea creatures swimming around in that subsurface ocean. Or there might not. If we want to find out, Europa’s lineae may be a good place to start looking.

The reddish-brown substance is believed to seep up through the cracking, fissuring ice. Does it include organic material? Amino acids? Maybe some sort of alien DNA? Hopefully NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will be able to find out (pending Congressional approval and so forth).

Lineae are most commonly associated with Europa, but the term has also been used to describe line-like features on a handful of other worlds, including Mars (although Mars’s recurring slope lineae are very different from lineae on Europa).

In next week’s edition of Sciency Words, we’ll continue exploring the moons of Jupiter. There are plenty of other terms that had to be invented following Voyager 1’s visit.

P.S.: I once ate at a seafood restaurant named Nova Europa. I know it was supposed to be Mediterranean-themed, but that is not what I was thinking about when they served my calamari.

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