News from Space: NASA taking Suggestions on Europa

europa_image_0The Jovian moon of Europa remains a mystery that is just dying to be cracked. Although covered in ice, scientists have long understood that tidal forces caused by its proximity to Jupiter have created a warm interior, one which can sustain warm oceans beneath the surface. In the coming years, NASA wants to fly a mission to this planet so we can finally get a look at what, if anything, is lurking beneath that icy crust.

Perhaps emboldened by the success of the Curiosity Rover and the plans for a manned mission to Mars in 2030, NASA has several possible plans for what a Europa mission might look like. If the budget environment proves hospital, then NASA will likely send a satellite that will perform several orbits of the moon, a series of flybys on it, and scout the surface for science and potential landing sites.

europa_reportTowards this end, they are looking for proposals for science instruments specifically tailored to the task. And within a year’s time, they plan to select 20 from a list of those proposed for the mission. At which point, the selectees will have $25 million to do a more advanced concept study. As John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, stated:

The possibility of life on Europa is a motivating force for scientists and engineers around the world. This solicitation will select instruments which may provide a big leap in our search to answer the question: are we alone in the universe?

The Europa mission is not a guarantee, and it’s unclear just how much money will be allocated to it in the long run. NASA has requested $15 million in fiscal 2015 for the mission, but the mission will naturally be subject to budgetary approvals by Congress. If it passes all obstacles, it would fly sometime in the 2020s, according to information released with the budget earlier this year.

europa-lander-2In April, NASA sent out a request for information to interested potential participants on the mission itself, which it plans to cost less than $1 billion (excluding launch costs). Besides its desire to look for landing sites, NASA said the instruments should also be targeted to meet the National Resource Council’s (NRC) Planetary Decadal Survey’s desires for science on Europa.

In NASA’s words, these are what those objectives are:

  • Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior;
  • Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange;
  • Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability;
  • Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration;
  • Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.

JIMO_Europa_Lander_MissionAccording to the agency, any instrument proposal must meet NASA’s landing scout goal or the NRC goals. The instruments must also be highly protected against the harsh radiation, and meet planetary protection requirements to ensure no extraterrestrial life is contaminated with our own. In essence, this means than any instruments must be safeguarded against carrying bacteria that could play havoc with Europan microbes or (do we dare to dream!) more complex organisms.

Solicitations are due by Oct. 17, so if you’ve got an idea and think it might make the cut, consult the following solicitation page and have a look at what NASA is looking for. Personally, I got nothing. But that’s why they don’t pay me the big bucks! No, like most of humanity, I will simply be sitting back and hoping that a mission to Europa happens within my lifetime, and that it uncovers – to quote Arthur C. Clarke’s 201o: Odyssey Two – “something wonderful”…


New Movie Trailer: Europa Report

europa_reportOrdinarily, I like to show movie previews before the movie has been released. This time around, I’m a little behind the curve. But my thanks to Rami for bringing this movie to my attention, since it seems like just the thing for us sci-fi geeks and buffs. It’s called the Europa Report, a near-future speculative science fiction film that follows in the vein of the 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Blair Witch Project.

Taking place in 2061, the story follows a group of astronauts who are sent on a private venture to Jupiter’s moon of Europa to investigate it for signs of life. Naturally, things go wrong, lives are lost, and the footage of their mission becomes the basis of a “report” that people back at Earth pour over, hoping to find some answers to the mystery of what happened.

The film was officially released just under two weeks ago, on August 2nd, and has received some pretty kick-ass reviews. Over at, they claimed the movie was “One of the most thrilling and realistic depictions of space exploration since Moon or 2001: A Space Odyssey”, while IO9’s Annalee Newitz wrote of the film:

The representations of Jupiter and Europa in this film come directly from real satellite imagery gathered by NASA, and the journey to Europa itself is both realistic and gorgeous. There’s a lesson here about how dramatic tension and brilliant concept design, even on an indie budget, can create a sense of wonder rivaling that of a VFX blockbuster. And the payoff at the end is electrifying.

Hot damn, that’s a good endorsement! As for me, and I imagine Rami, I plan to see it and offer a review of my own! A movie like this couldn’t be more timely. Already, long-term plans are being made to send a lander or a space penetrator to Europa to have a gander at what lies beneath its icy veil. And I look forward to the day when the reality of that planet and all the speculative fiction can get together and compare notes!


News From Space: Eyes on Europa

europa-landerIt’s one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, named the Jovians by the famed astronomer – Galileo Galilee – who first discovered them. And from all outward appearances, the moon is an icy, inhospitable place, with surface temperatures never reaching above -160º C (-256º F). Yet, beneath that frozen outer shell is believed to be a liquid, saltwater ocean, one that draws warmth from its orbit around Jupiter.

If this should indeed be the case, then Europa would be about the best candidate for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System, albeit in microbial form. For decades now, NASA has been working under that assumption and preparing for the day that it might be able to send an expedition or probe to confirm it. And it now seems that that day may be on the horizon.

europa-lander-2According to NASA, this would likely take the form of a robot lander. Much like Curiosity, Opportunity, and other robotic research vehicles, it would packed with a variety of sensors and analytical equipment. But of course, the nature of that equipment would be specifically tailored to answer a series of unknowns pertaining to Europa itself.

Overall, the lander would have three priorities: discover the makeup of minerals and organic matter present on the moon; examine the geophysics of the ice and the ocean underneath; and determine how the geology looks (and therefore how it might have evolved) at a human scale on the surface. Basically, it would all boil down to looking at chemistry, water and energy – in other words, the conditions necessary for life.

And though NASA has not announced any official dates, it has begun to speak of the idea an indication of intent. A new article by NASA scientists published in the peer-reviewed journal Astrobiology entitled Science Potential from a Europa Lander set out their research goals in more detail, and speculated how they might be practically achieved.

europa-lander-4One area of focus would be Europa’s distinctive linear surface cracks which are believed to be the result of tidal forces. Europa’s eccentric orbit about Jupiter causes very high tides when the moon passes closest to the gas giant, so it is thought that this process would generate the heat necessary for simple life to survive. NASA thinks the cracks could contain biological makers, molecules indicating the presence of organic life, which have come from the ocean.

But of course, plotting a mission is not as simple as simply launching a robot into space. To ensure that such a mission would maximize returns requires that a “scientifically optimized” landing site be identified, and to do that, Europa’s surface must be thoroughly surveilled. Thus far, the little we know and think about Europa is based on a handful of flybys by Voyager 2 in the 70s and the Galileo probe in the 90s.

europa-lander-3Lead author Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory summed up the situation as follows:

There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa, but studies like these will help us focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations. Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life.

At the present time, NASA’s exploratory itinerary is quite packed. In addition to wanting to tow an asteroid closer to Earth to study it, launching two more rovers to Mars, constructing a settlement on the far side of the Moon, and conducting a manned mission to Mars, it’s safe to say that a robot lander on Europa won’t be happening for some time.

converted PNM fileBut of course, the plans are in place and moving forward with every passing year. NASA is certainly not going to pass up a chance to examine one of the Solar Systems best candidates for extra-terrestrial life, and we can certainly expect more deep-space probes to be launched once Cassini is finished shooting pictures of Saturn.

I am willing to bet good money that any future probe sent into the outer reaches of the Solar System will be tasked with taking high-resolution photos of Europa as part of its mission. And from that, we can certainly expect NASA, the ESA, and even the Chinese, Russians and Indians to start talking turkey within our lifetimes.

What do you think? 2035 seem like a safe bet for a Europa lander mission?