NASA is putting together a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa and hopes that may find signs of alien life on the frozen, barren planet.
The agency is working with scientists and engineers to come up with a mission to Europa that would search for alien life, focusing on blasts of water vapor in the moon’s polar region. They think this could be a way to sample the liquid water, which is normally unaccessible through the thick layer of ice covering the moon.
“Europa is clearly such a prime target for astrobiology that having a workshop like this to try and figure out all the ways in which we could possibly sample its ocean… [is] critically important,” said Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The project to Europa has some big backing. Earlier this month, the White House allocated $30 million for the first phase of the mission, part of a $18.5 billion request that is still awaiting Congressional approval.
The total cost of the Europa mission, from start to finish, would be more than $2 billion.
The mission’s architects are confident that they will get their initial funding.
“We are going to do a Europa mission, and I’m very excited about that,” said John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who is now NASA’s associate administrator for the science mission directorate. “I think it’s unlikely that Congress is going tell us, ‘No, NASA shouldn’t be doing a Europa mission.’ Very unlikely.”
NASA has a rough plan for the mission, sending a vessel that would travel to Jupiter’s orbit and make 45 flybys of Europa over 3.5 years. In addition to collecting water samples, the mission would also measure and map the icy shell covering the surface, which could lay the groundwork for a future mission to Europa.
But the NASA mission to Europa to look for alien life isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The earliest the mission could start is 2022, and based on current technology it wouldn’t reach Jupiter’s system until 2030.