Europa, one of the Galilean Moons, which are the four largest moons of Jupiter, has long been a place of interest for many scientists. While Jupiter has over 60 known satellites, Europa is perhaps one of the most famous and interesting.
Europa is believed to harbor a subsurface ocean beneath its icy crust, and according to NASA, it is believed to contain “at least twice” the amount of water that Earth’s oceans have. Although other “ocean worlds” are believed to exist, NASA also explains that Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are the only two places believed to possess an ocean that is “in contact with a rocky seafloor.”
Per NASA, Europa is also believed to be one of the top candidates in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. Of course, water has long been known to be one of the key ingredients for life as we know it here on Earth. This past week, NASA revealed that it had received a “science report” for a “Europa lander concept.”
— SPACE.com (@SPACEdotcom) February 10, 2017
In a press release, NASA revealed that early last year, they answered a directive from congress and started “a pre-Phase A study to assess the science value and engineering design of a future Europa lander mission.”
Over the summer, NASA explains that a 21-member unit was assembled to be part of the Science Definition Team (SDT) and go to work on ideas for a potential lander mission to the enigmatic moon of Jupiter. The Science Definition Team has now delivered their results.
Per NASA, the Science Definition Team’s report outlines a trio of main objectives for a lander mission to Europa: searching for proof of life, analyzing whether the moon is potentially habitable in the event that life is not found, and studying “the surface and subsurface” to further map out other plans for “robotic exportation” of the moon in the future.
The biggest and most important of the three goals, NASA explains, is the search for life. According to NASA, the duty of creating “a life-detection strategy,” which was given to the Science Definition Team, is something that a NASA mission has not tackled since the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s.
The Science Definition Team also reported on the types of tools that would be needed for the mission, and how to safely send the lander to Europa.
“Given that Europa has no atmosphere, the team developed a concept that could deliver its science payload to the icy surface without the benefit of technologies like a heat shield or parachutes.”
One of the obstacles in searching for life beneath Europa’s surface is finding a way to drill through its icy shell. Per Sarah Fecht of Popular Science, the lander would have the ability to dig just slightly beneath Europa’s surface and “scoop up ice samples.”
Per Popular Science, the lander would also come equipped with a microscope that would give it the ability to detect proof for “dead microbes.” The lander would also possess several other tools that would aid it in its search for evidence of life.
“Other instruments would look for organic materials, such as amino acids and lipids, that make up life as we know it. Meanwhile, determining how inorganic compounds are distributed could also hint at whether life is present.”
In September, it was reported that the Hubble telescope had spotted possible water plumes erupting from Europa. The evidence of potential water plumes excited scientists, as it opened the door to potentially investigating Europa’s ocean without having to drill into its surface. In a press release from NASA, Geoff Yoder of NASA’ Science Mission Directorate In Washington was quoted as saying that if the water plumes are in fact real, they might “provide another way to sample Europa’s [ocean].”
— Popular Science (@PopSci) February 10, 2017
In December, the Inquisitr also reported that a team of NASA scientists were working on designing and testing intelligent underwater drones, which could one day be used to search for life on places such as Europa.
NASA will be hosting a pair of “town hall meetings” in the very near future to converse about the report from the SDT and receive input from scientists. The town halls will take place on March 19 and April 23, respectively, per NASA.
According to Popular Science, a lander mission to Europa isn’t etched in stone yet, and the report is “preliminary,” but the hope is that a lander could arrive at the Jovian moon by the year 2031. According to TechCrunch, the radiation coming from Jupiter would most likely result in a short lifespan for the potential lander.
NASA further explains that a flyby mission of Europa, which is separate from the proposed lander concept, is currently in the works and scheduled to “launch in the early 2020s.”
Per NASA, the flyby mission will span multiple years and would perform “45 close flybys” of Europa. The full report on the potential lander mission to Europa can be read in a 264-page PDF posted by NASA.
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