Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

How well do we know Europa’s topography? An evaluation of the variability in digital terrain models of Europa.

December 15, 2021
Jupiter’s moon Europa harbors one of the most likely environments for extant extraterrestrial life. Determining whether Europa is truly habitable requires understanding the structure and thickness of its ice shell, including the existence of perched water or brines. Stereo-derived topography from images acquired by NASA Galileo’s Solid State Imager (SSI) of Europa are often used as a constraint on ice shell structure and heat flow, but the uncertainty in such topography has, to date, not been rigorously assessed. To evaluate the current uncertainty in Europa’s topography we generated and compared digital terrain models (DTMs) of Europa from SSI images using both the open-source Ames Stereo Pipeline (ASP) software and the commercial SOCET SET® software. After first describing the criteria for assessing stereo quality in detail, we qualitatively and quantitatively describe both the horizontal resolution and vertical precision of the DTMs. We find that the horizontal resolution of the SOCET SET® DTMs is typically 8–11× the root mean square (RMS) pixel scale of the images, whereas the resolution of the ASP DTMs is 9–13× the maximum pixel scale of the images. We calculate the RMS difference between the ASP and SOCET SET® DTMs as a proxy for the expected vertical precision (EP), which is a function of the matching accuracy and stereo geometry. We consistently find that the matching accuracy is ~0.5 pixels, which is larger than well-established “rules of thumb” that state that the matching accuracy is 0.2–0.3 pixels. The true EP is therefore ~1.7× larger than might otherwise be assumed. In most cases, DTM errors are approximately normally distributed, and errors that are several times the derived EP occur as expected. However, in two DTMs, larger errors (differences) occur and correlate with real topography. These differences primarily result from manual editing of the SOCET SET® DTMs. The product of the DTM error and the resolution is typically 4–8 pixel2 if calculated using the RMS image scale for SOCET SET® DTMs and the maximum images scale for the ASP DTMs, which is consistent with recent work using martian data sets and suggests that the relationship applies more broadly. We evaluate how ASP parameters affect DTM quality and find that using a smaller subpixel refinement kernel results in DTMs with smaller (better) resolution but, in some cases, larger gaps, which are sometimes reduced by increasing the size of the correlation kernel. We conclude that users of ASP should always systematically evaluate the choice of parameters for a given dataset.
Publication Year 2021
Title How well do we know Europa’s topography? An evaluation of the variability in digital terrain models of Europa.
DOI 10.3390/rs13245097
Authors Michael T. Bland, Randolph L. Kirk, Donna M. Galuszka, David Mayer, R. A. Beyer, Robin L. Fergason
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Remote Sensing
Index ID 70230949
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Astrogeology Science Center