NASA Is Looking For Life On Europa

NASA has put out an Announcement of Opportunity (AO) asking scientists to come up with new tools to help in the search for extraterrestrial life by examining the waters thought to lie beneath Europa’s icy surface.

“The possibility of life on Europa is a motivating force for scientists and engineers around the world,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “This solicitation will select instruments which may provide a big leap in our search to answer the question: are we alone in the universe?”

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Key goals for NASA’s Europa mission

The National Resource Council’s (NRC) Planetary Decadal Survey has put a high priority on the exploration of Europa and set five key goals for the upcoming mission to Jupiter’s moon (still a couple of years away). Most important is that the tools should be able to characterize the size of Europa’s ocean, which is thought to have more water than all the Earth’s oceans combined, gather information about the moon’s inner core. Second, the scientific instruments should be able to characterize the interactions between the surface ice and the ocean beneath, and their heterogeneity.

NASA also wants to examine the composition and chemistry of Europa’s surface to determine if it is habitable, get a better understanding of how surface features form when dynamics are so different from what we’re used to here on Earth, and gather data about the planet’s magnetosphere.

In addition to meeting these goals, scientists will have to prove that their equipment can stand up to the high radiation environment found on Europa and that they won’t accidentally transport viable life to the moon. This last requirement might sound odd, but if NASA thinks there is a real chance of finding life (think bacteria, not ET) then it doesn’t want to risk contaminating the alien habitat.

20 initial proposals to be selected next April

NASA is looking for solicitation to come in by October 17, and it will select 20 proposals by April 2015 to receive $25 million for a more refined concept study. The space agency is expecting to select about eight final proposals with a total budget of $1 billion for the mission (not counting the launch or the launch vehicle), though the NRC has asked it to pare down the budget if possible.

The announcement didn’t mention a target date for the actual launch, but considering the timing of the solicitations it won’t be any earlier than 2016.