A mission to sample Jupiter’s moon Europa for signs of life will move into its final design and construction phase, according to a NASA announcement.
Scientists have long wondered whether the ice-covered moon could harbour life in a subsurface liquid water ocean. NASA has committed to a launch readiness date in 2025, though the mission could be ready as soon as 2023.
Europa is one of Jupiter’s many moons, around the size of Earth’s Moon. Planetary scientists have paid lots of attention to it because it is believed to have a subsurface ocean, and of course, water’s presence is an important ingredient for life, at least as we know it here on Earth. A mission to fly by the planet and grab sample materials could provide evidence as to what mysteries the planet’s ocean holds.
A Europa clipper mission would orbit Jupiter and repeatedly fly close to Europa, measuring it with a suit of nine instruments, including cameras, a radar, a magnetic field-sensing instrument, a heat measuring device, and a mass spectrometer to measure what kinds of matter the moon ejects into space. Scientists operating the Hubble Space Telescope have already spotted evidence of Europa spewing a plume of water vapour, and last year, scientists realised that the Galileo Jupiter Orbiter might have flown right through one of those plumes. Perhaps those plumes have even deposited evidence of life, like amino acids, on Europa’s surface.
The “confirmation” is part of NASA’s project management plan, which divides missions into phases separated by independent reviews. This decision moves the project from its preliminary design phase to its final design and construction phase, after which another review would move it to the system assembly, test, and launch phase.
A Europa-exploring mission has been on scientists minds’ for decades. The most recent mission has likely benefitted from the advocacy of recently unseated congressman John Culberson, a Republican from the US state of Texas. A lander to Europa’s surface was scheduled to follow closely on the Clipper’s heels, but plans for it have been delayed until no earlier than 2030, Science reported.
This most recent announcement is an exciting step forward for those wondering whether there’s extraterrestrial life here in our own solar system. Let’s hope it gets off the ground.
Featured image: NASA/JPL-Caltech