If there’s alien life in our solar system it’s probably present on Jupiter’s moon Europa, and a new NASA mission is keen to investigate the possibility. It has been reviewed and is going to enter the development (formulation) phase next. The space agency has been observing the icy moon for almost two decades now and thinks it’s about time someone got to the bottom of this tantalizing Galilean satellite’s secrets.
More precisely, NASA wants to confirm if Europa does indeed have an ocean (as revealed by the 1989 Galileo mission) rolling beneath its icy surface and whether it hosts extraterrestrial life forms. It is the sixth largest moon in the solar system and could hold two times as much water as Earth. The mission in question will launch a spacecraft into Jupiter’s orbit sometime in the 2020s. Once it within appropriate range of the planet, it will orbit it every fortnight while also executing close flybys of Europa.
NASA won’t be able to set up a mission to land on the icy crust of the moon since it is bathed in the sort of radiation that would cook any spacecraft which touches down on it. This implies that Europa is not suitable for life as we know it here on Earth. But its hidden ocean can contain simpler organisms capable of existing in harsh conditions. There are plans to conduct 45 flybys to capture high resolution photos of Europa’s exterior as well as investigate what lies beneath its cold, hard surface.
The space agency also intends to find clues with regards to the composition of Europa. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California will be in charge of the mission. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory has been assisting JPL with the study of the multiple-flyby mission concept for almost four years. The nine instruments which will be aboard the Jupiter-bound spacecraft, were announced in May this year.