A new mission to see if water or life exists beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa has moved from concept to development, NASA announced this week.
“Europa is the most likely place to find life in our solar system today because we think there’s a liquid water ocean beneath its surface,” said Europa mission project scientist Robert Pappalardo. “We know that on Earth, everywhere that there’s water we find life. So could Europa have the ingredients to support life?”
That’s the poetic driving force behind the mission. Broken down scientifically, NASA plans on sending a satellite to the Jupiter moon some time in the 2020s. The satellite will have enough instrumentation on board to get a better understanding of the Jupiter moon.
A decade ago, the Galileo spacecraft made 11 passes by Jupiter and led scientists to believe Europa had a massive ocean under the moon’s icy crust that could potentially have twice as much water as Earth.
Wednesday’s milestone marked the move in the mission to a developmental phase called formulation after passing NASA review. NASA’s 2016 fiscal budget earmarks $30 million for the formulation phase. NASA announced in May the experiments that would be on board the probe.
“Today we’re taking an exciting step from concept to mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions.”
Because of the radiation emitted from Jupiter, the satellite will be designed to do a series of 45 fly-bys over three years to gather the information including potentially flying right through a plume of water shot into space from the moon, an occurrence of which Hubble Space Telescope seems to have evidence.
“We could fly through those plumes with a spacecraft and literally taste it to understand the composition of Europa’s interior,” Pappalardo said.
The probe will feature nine science missions including cameras and spectrometers for high-resolution images, ice-penetrating radar, a magnetometer and thermal instruments. The goal is to see how thick the moon’s surface is and search for subsurface lakes, determine the depth and salinity of its ocean, search for recent warmer-water eruption sites and search for evidence of water particles in the moon’s thin atmosphere.
“If it does have the ability to harbor life, how does that work exactly? We’ll have enough instrumentation to really pinpoint exactly how the mechanisms would work for replenishing the nutrients in a subsurface ocean,” said Claudia Alexander, Galileo Mission Project Manager.
She said the Galileo mission’s evidence led scientists to consider the moon might be more than a dead rock in space.
“We might be actually looking at a body that is presently alive, presently active and presently undergoing its geology,” she said. “There is too much evidence right now lying around on the surface – the red stuff – that suggests that something is going on there. Is that an environment that is habitable for any sort of life form. By golly we really have got to go back and figure that out.”
The mission is being run out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Work has been going on since 2011 to figure out what exactly should be on the probe.
“Europa is so important because we want to understand, ‘Are we alone in the cosmos?'” If there is life in Europa, it is almost certainly was completely independent from the origin of life on Earth,” said Pappalardo. “That would mean the origin of life must be pretty easy throughout the galaxy and beyond.”
Below are NASA’s descriptions of the nine science missions:
Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) — principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.
Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG) — principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and – in conjunction with the PIMS instrument – infer the location, thickness and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.
Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) — principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of JPL. This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.
Europa Imaging System (EIS) — principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of APL. The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.
Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) — principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. This dual-frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.
Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) — principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe. This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.
MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) — principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio. This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.
Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) — principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of SwRI. This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.
SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) — principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado, Boulder. This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.
Separate from the selectees listed above, the SPace Environmental and Composition Investigation near the Europan Surface (SPECIES) instrument has been chosen for further technology development. Led by principal investigator Dr. Mehdi Benna at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, this combined neutral mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph will be developed for other mission opportunities.