The Nine Things NASA Unveiled To Determine Europa’s Habitability

NASA took one step closer to its trip to Europa, which is the best hope for finding life in our solar system (aside from Earth). The space agency revealed nine scientific instruments that will go along with a future spacecraft that will determine the planet’s habitability.

According to Science, Europa, one of Jupiter’s (at least) 67 moons, has a thick icy shell, but underneath is a salty liquid ocean. In that alien environment, there’s a chance that life developed.

Scientists believe there are hydrothermal vents on the seafloor, giving a source of energy for lifeforms in the dark territory, just like how life has formed around Earth’s vents.

The prospective for extraterrestrial life has made Europa a new priority for NASA.

The plan is to send a solar-powered spacecraft to orbit the tiny moon 45 times over the course of two and a half years. The total cost for NASA will be roughly $2 billion dollars.

A big part of the NASA project has been asking researchers what scientific instruments they should bring to Europa. In the recent announcement, they say they’ve selected nine out of 33 proposed tools.

According to CBC News, NASA will explore every section of Europa possible from orbit.

  • Mass spectrometer and dust analyzer: to analyze the composition of the thin atmosphere and study small bits that came off of the planet.
  • Infrared spectrometer: to analyze the composition of the surface (Scientists are especially interested in a strange reddish gunk on the surface.)
  • High-resolution imaging system: currently only 10 percent of Europa’s surface is mapped out, with the new cameras it will be 100 percent.
  • Heat detector and ultraviolet spectrograph: the Hubble Telescope discovered evidence that Europa has geysers at the surface; these instruments will seek them out.
  • Magnetometer and magnetic sounder: to determine the thickness of Europa’s ice shell and the salinity of the inner ocean.
  • Ice-penetrating radar: to look for lakes and other features within the ice (and maybe alien submarines).

Noticeably absent from NASA’s list is a “life detector,” considering the interest in Europa as a home to alien lifeforms.

NASA Europa program scientist Curt Niebur explained one of the key problems is not knowing what a life detector is.

“Building a life detector is incredibly difficult. We’re not even sure how to go about building it yet. But it’s something that has received renewed interest and vigor lately because of the Europa mission, so that’s something that we’re going to be poking into a lot more aggressively in the near future.”

Furthermore, the scientific instruments are fairly mundane compared to some other ideas for exploring the icy moon.

As previously reported by the Inquisitr, some researchers proposed sending a robotic eel to swim in the alien brine searching out life. The project won NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program and received $100,000 to further development. Likewise, others have proposed sending a submarine.

Still, there’s plenty of time for NASA to figure out some new gear to send to Europa; the mission is slated for the mid-2020s.

[Image Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons]