NASA Plans Mission To Europa To Look For Life

NASA has been quietly working on a concept for a Europa mission for about 15 years

NASA administrator Charles Bolden said at the annual State of NASA address that the space agency was moving ahead with plans to send a spacecraft to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Bolden said that NASA is selecting instruments this spring and “moving toward the next phase of our work.” Bolden hailed President Obama’s proposal to boost the space agency’s budget by half-a-billion-dollar to $18.5 billion.

Why is NASA interested in Europa?

The proposed budget includes $30 million for the “formulation of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.” That’s on top of $100 million that Congress committed last year to begin design work for a Europa mission. The additional request, coupled with Bolden’s enthusiastic remarks, has brought a new vigor to the mission planning.

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So, why Europa? Because Jupiter’s moon is believed to have a subsurface ocean. The Voyager spacecraft in 1979 showed that its icy surface was cracked in places. Further investigation by the Galileo spacecraft confirmed the possibility of water. And where there is liquid water, there is life. NASA has been quietly working on a concept for a Europa mission for more than a decade.

ESA to launch Europa mission in 2022

The mission concept that the space agency is developing is called the Europa Clipper. Rather than orbiting Europa, it will orbit Jupiter and make about 45 flybys. That’s because the radiation field near Jupiter’s icy moon could ruin the spacecraft’s electronic equipment if it is permanently stationed. Europa Clipper would “investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.”

If the mission remains on track, it will be ready for launch in mid-2020s. But the European space agency is already working on its own mission named the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE). ESA plans to launch it in 2022. It will explore Jupiter’s moons Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. Stuart Clack of The Guardian says NASA could use it as a fore-runner to improve its own mission. The U.S. space agency is already funding many of the instruments on JUICE.