Without grabbing headlines, a planned trip to Jupiter’s fourth largest moon has scientists and space fanatics alike clamoring with excitement.
President Obama’s recently published budget proposal has $18.5 billion earmarked for NASA with some of that money set aside for a robotic visit to Jupiter’s moon of Europa. The number Obama is looking for is a $500 million increase over NASA’s 2015 budget. While a return to the moon and a voyage to Mars remain the headline grabbers among NASA’s long-term goals, many are excited about the trip to Europa and the search for extraterrestrial life.
“Looking to the future, we’re planning a mission to explore Jupiter’s fascinating moon Europa,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a news conference on Monday.
Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA have long looked at a mission to Europa but in the mind of senior research scientist Robert Pappalardo the proposals have either been too large or too small in scope while others were just financially nonviable.
The “Europa Clipper”
The concept that is likely to go forward is called the “Europa Clipper” and would see a Jupiter-orbiting spacecraft making multiple flybys of Europa over the course of three years. NASA feels this would allow roughly 45 passes during the three year preliminary mission. The mission would be similar to that of the Cassini spacecraft which is presently orbiting Saturn and has mapped the surface of its moon Titan.
Scientists have long wondered about Europa’s ability to sustain life given the belief that there may be a vast sub-surface ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust. If it indeed exists, it could hold up to three times the amount of water found in Earth’s collective oceans.
At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “Icy Worlds” event yesterday, astrobiologist Keven Hand said, “Europa’s ocean, to the best of our knowledge, isn’t that harsh of an environment.” While the ocean, if it indeed exists, could be as many as 60 miles beneath the surface, that in itself doesn’t necessarily negate the idea of biology getting a foothold on Europa.
Life on Europa?
Europa is roughly the size and mass as the Earth’s moon and has comparable gravity. Scientists believe that Europa will also have hydrothermal vents that would keep the ocean “warm” enough to possible sustain life. Additionally, it’s believed that the icy crust of Europa would keep out radiation that would rule out life as we know it.
While the prospects of life on Europa are exciting, NASA is making it clear that this initial mission would not be a life-finding mission. “The way we framed the Europa mission science objectives is not to specifically look for life, but to understand habitability; the ingredients for life,” said Hand.
Any true search for life would require a presence on the moon’s surface and that prospect is presently not within NASA’s technological abilities.