NASA really wants to go to Europa, and anyone who knows anything about exobiology really wants NASA to go to Europa. Why? Water.
On Earth, water is what fuels life. Of course, there are a lot of other things that fuel life on our planet, but water is an integral part of life as we know it. Indeed, so far, all of our research has indicated that where there is water, there is life (Earth isn’t called “the Pale Blue Dot” for nothing). And while it is possible that alien life could exists on other worlds and thrive off of something else entirely (iron, maybe?), when one is searching for the first signs of life out in the universe, it makes sense to look for it in familiar places.
And it seems that we may be on our way. In NASA's 2016 budget, the plan to explore Europa got a huge pay off, to the tune of $255 million over the course of five years, which is a very promising boost to last year's $100 million allocation, which was meant to begin investigations into the feasibility of such a mission. According to NASA, "this is the first time, the budget supports the formulation and development of a Europa Mission, allowing NASA to begin project formulation, Phase A."
So what does NASA intend to do on Europa? Their equipment list helps to clarify:
The possible payload of science instruments under consideration includes radar to penetrate the frozen crust and determine the thickness of the ice shell, an infrared spectrometer to investigate the composition of Europa's surface materials, a topographic camera for high-resolution imaging of surface features, and an ion and neutral mass spectrometer to analyze the moon's trace atmosphere during flybys.
In response to this news, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) senior research scientist, Robert Pappalardo, said in a statement, after 15 years going over Europa mission concepts, many of which were simply too small, too big, or just too expensive, “we believe we have now found the one that is just right.”
“We call this concept the Europa Clipper,” he said.
According to the information that was complied by NASA’s Galileo satellite, the amount of liquid life (water) sloshing about beneath the surface of this tiny, icy moon is approximately 2—3 times more voluminous than the oceans here on Earth. Keep in mind that Europa is a bit smaller than Earth; however, the amount of water that it contains is 2—3 times more in total volume.
Since this moon has such an abundance of H2O, and it seems that this water is in a liquid state, and where we find water liquid water we find life, scientists think that Europa has an amazing chance of harboring life.
The Clipper concept consists of a Jupiter-orbiting spacecraft that will make multiple flybys of the Jovian moon over a 3 year period. The spacecraft will dive deep into Jupiter’s radiation belts to fly over Europa’s surface approximately 45 times during its primary mission.
The Europa Clipper will be focused on Europa in an effort to understand its habitable potential. Of course, we aren't quite at the alien world just yet. Monday’s news is only the start of our journey to Europa, but all the same, it takes the Europa Clipper from concept to planning, so hopes are high that the Europa Clipper will follow NASA’s Juno spacecraft as the next big mission to explore Jupiter’s enigmatic moon.
The final frontier awaits...