Is it possible that NASA’s Europa mission yield signs of extraterrestrial life? It won’t be another 13 years before that mission to one of Jupiter’s moons takes place, and even then, a lot of work will need to be done to as much as find the trademark features of a world being able to support life.
According to a press release from NASA, the space agency’s Planetary Science Division began a feasibility study in early-2016 to determine if a Europa lander mission has any scientific merit and if the proposed lander’s design could pass muster. Since that time, and since the formation of a 21-member Science Definition Team (SDT) to determine this mission’s feasibility, NASA’s Europa mission concept now has a “workable and worthy set of science objectives and measurements,” as well as three science goals also illustrated in the press release.
“The primary goal is to search for evidence of life on Europa. The other goals are to assess the habitability of Europa by directly analyzing material from the surface, and to characterize the surface and subsurface to support future robotic exploration of Europa and its ocean. The report also describes some of the notional instruments that could be expected to perform measurements in support of these goals.”
A report from Gizmodo Australia clarified that NASA’s Europa mission concept is not to be confused with a flyby mission the agency will hopefully be carrying out in the early-2020s. This mission is said to play an important part in the lander mission, as it will “scout out plumes or cracks” where water and other subterranean materials from the moon may escape. These locations will then be visited by the lander, where it will collect samples, hopefully laying the ground for more lander missions to Europa.
Since previous missions, such as NASA’s late-1990s Galileo mission, had found signs that Europa may have a subterranean ocean buried underneath thick layers of ice, that begs the question of whether the moon can harbor extraterrestrial life. According to SDT member Jonathan Lunine, the proposed lander has a “great design,” and great potential to kick things off by drilling four inches into the crust as planned. This would be the first step in the search for alien life (or it signs) on the icy moon.
“I was skeptical that we could in fact design a payload with a reasonable technological maturity and relative simplicity. Thanks to the engineers, a very practical solution was found and the payload we put together is not overly ambitious. The bottom line is I became much more of a believer that this is a mission that can be done in a time frame I’d be interested, in the next 20 years or so.”
Lunine and his fellow SDT members also suggested that NASA’s lander uses a camera system to monitor what goes on outside, special tools for analyzing Europa’s crust and its chemistry, and a geophone, or a similar device used for tracking geologic activity. He sees the mission, which may likely take place around 2031, as a “bug hunt,” one that would specifically mean searching for biosignatures, or isotopes that may serve as a sign of past or present extraterrestrial life.
Still, it’s going to take quite a while before NASA potentially discovers signs of, or features that could host alien life in Europa. METI International president Doug Vakoch also spoke to Gizmodo Australia, and he said that the moon is indeed a good candidate for hosting alien life, but since the 2031 mission will only drill four inches into the crust, that may not be apparent just yet, as more missions will be needed to drill much further.
“To have the best chance of finding life on Europa, we’d love to be able to drill beneath the icy crust. That won’t happen with the first lander that NASA is now discussing, which would dig down only four inches.”
Vakoch concluded that NASA’s Europa mission would help scientists learn more about the moon’s potential habitability, even if no signs of life are found when the lander mission takes place.
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