News from Space: The Search for Life on Europa

europa-landerJupiter’s moon of Europa is one of the best and most intriguing candidates for extra-terrestrial life in our Solar System. For many decades, scientists have known that beneath its icy outer-shell, a warm, liquid ocean resides. Due largely to interaction with Jupiter’s strong magnetic field – which causes heat-generating tidal forces in Europa’s interior – these warm waters may host life.

And now, new models suggest that its ice-covered waters are turbulent near the lower latitudes. This is what gives rise to its chaotic equatorial landscapes, but intriguingly, may also make it easier for life to make it to the surface. This contradicts previously held beliefs that Europa’s life was contained beneath it’s outer shell, and will mean that any missions mounted to Europa may have an easier time spotting it.

europa_chaosterrainThanks to ongoing observation of the planet’s surface – especially the Galileo and New Horizons space probes which provided comprehensive and detailed images – it has been known that Europa’s surface features are not consistent. The landscape is marked by features of disrupted ice known as chaos terrains, geological features that are characterized by huge chunks of ice that have broken away and then re-froze into chaotic patterns.

These models were produced by University of Texas geophysicist Krista Soderlund and her colleagues. Based on computer simulations, Soderlund and her colleagues have theorized that turbulent global ocean currents move Europa’s internal heat to the surface most efficiently in regions closest to the moon’s equator. This is likely causing the melting and upwelling at the surface, and why regions further north and south appear to be smoother.

europa_modelIn addition, the models indicate that given Europa’s spin, heat flow, and other factors, it likely percolates upward at about 1m per second or so — which is remarkably fast. This would explain why the equatorial regions appear to be so fragmented. But it also means that these areas are also likely yo be relatively fragile and soft, which means that upward currents could bring nutrients and even living organisms to the surface.

Hence why any potential search for signs of life on this moon would now appear to be considerably easier. If missions are indeed mounted to Europa in the not-too-distant future, either involving probes or manned missions (most likely in that order), their best bet for finding life would be to land at the equator. Then, with some drilling, they could obtain core samples that would determine whether or not life-sustaining nutrients and organic particles exist beneath the ice.

Hopefully, these missions won’t run afoul of any life that doesn’t take too well to their presence. We don’t want a re-enactment of Europa Report on our hands now do we?


Alien Spotting by 2020?

alien-worldWith recent observations made possible by the Kepler space telescope, numerous planets have been discovered orbiting distant stars. Whereas previous observations and techniques could detect exoplanets, scientists are now able to observe and classify them, with the ultimate aim of determining how Earth-like they are and whether or not they can support life.

Combined with advanced astronomical techniques, the latest estimates claim that there may be are up to 50 sextillion potentially habitable planets in the universe. With their eyes on the next step, the scientific community is now preparing to launch a bevy of new space telescopes that can peer across the universe and tell us how many of those planets actually harbor life.

TESSOne such telescope is NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will launch in 2017. While Kepler was focused on a single patch of sky with around 145,000 stars, TESS will be equipped with four telescopes that keep track of around 500,000 stars, including the 1,000 nearest red dwarfs. TESS is expected to find thousands of orbiting, Earth-sized-or-larger planets around these stars.

But to find out whether or not any of those planets actually house life, another sophisticated telescope needs to be employed – the James Webb Space Telescope.Whereas TESS is Kepler’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope – a joint NASA/ESA/CSA venture – is the planned successor for the Hubble Telescope and is due to launch in 2018.

TESS_Space_Telescope_Mirror37-640x425The JWST has a primary mirror that’s about five times larger than Hubble’s (pictured above), which means it can resolve much fainter signals, locating stars and other objects that have never been seen before. Because it primarily operates in the infrared band (whereas Hubble was tuned towards visible light), the JWST will also be able to see through dust clouds into hidden areas of space.

The JWST’s scientific payload includes a spectrometer that’s sensitive enough to analyze the atmosphere of distant planets. By measuring light from the parent stars, and how its reflected in the planets atmospheres, it will be able to determine if there are life-supporting elements and evidence of biological life – such as oxygen and methane.

TESS_comparisonBecause these planets are light years away, and because the reflected light is incredibly dim, the James Webb Space Telescope will only be able to do this for large planets that orbit red and white dwarfs. Still, that leaves thousands or even millions of candidates that it will be able to observe, and determine whether or not they are already inhabited by extra-terrestrial life.

And last, but not least, there’s the New Worlds Mission, which aims to put a Starshade – which is essentially a big flying space umbrella – into space. This disc would then fly between the James Webb Space Telescope and the star its observing, blocking out large amounts of light and the result “noise pollution” from nearby bright stars that the JWST isn’t observing.

Starshade_1280x720_H264With the Starshade in place, the JWST would be able to probe thousands of nearby planets for signs of life and return data to Earth that is of far greater accuracy. The New Worlds Mission is currently in the prototyping stage, but NASA hopes to procure the necessary funding by 2015 and and launch it within the JWST’s own lifetime.

Because of all this, it is now believed that by 2020 (give or take a few years) we will have the ability to directly image a distant planet and analyze its atmosphere. And if we find methane or another biological marker on just one planet, it will completely redefine our understanding of the universe and the lifeforms that inhabit it.

The answer to the question – “are we alone in the universe?” – may finally be answered, and within our own lifetime. And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the Starshade space umbrella, courtesy of New Scientist.


News From Space: Manned Europa Mission!

europa-landerWith so much attention focused on Mars in recent years, the other planets of the Solar System have a hard time getting noticed. But lately, Europa has found itself the subject of some interest. In addition to NASA proposing to send a lander there in the near future, a private space organization is thinking of mounting a manned mission to the Jovian moon in search of knowledge and extra-terrestrial life.

This organization is known as Objective Europa, a group made up of  volunteer scientists, conceptual artists, and social-media experts. At the moment, they exist only on the internet. But with time and financial backing, they hope to form a volunteer corps of settlers that would make a one-way trip to Europa and settle the planet while they researched it.

europa-lander-2Inspired by the recent missions to Mars, Objective Europa also believes a mission to this moon would be worthwhile since it is a far better candidate for extra-terrestrial life. Mars, though it is thought to have once hosted life, is a barren and dry world in its present state. Though many are holding out for the discovery of organic particles in the near future, the likelihood of finding any complex organisms larger than a microbe remains extremely low.

Not surprisingly, their group has attracted some big-name celebrities. This includes Kristian von Bengtson, a Danish architect and co-founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals, a nonprofit focused on launching humans into space. Then there’s Michele Faragalli, a rover mobility specialist for a NASA private contractor. Scientist and diver Pierre-Yves Cousteau, son of legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau, is also on the team as an ambassador for the group.

europa_reportCurrently, the group is in Phase 1 of their plan, which is geared towards the gathering of ideas. Towards this end, they have opened up a variety of research topics for discussion on their website. These include investigating the feasibility of a manned mission versus a robotic mission, launch vehicle studies, and cost analysis.Future phases would involve raising funds, and prototyping and testing technology.

What’s more, while they have not yet stated outright how they plan to fund the mission, it seems likely at this point that crowdfunding and sponsorship will come into play. As the goal statement reads on their site:

“Our purpose is to establish the foundation for and carry out a crewed mission to Jovian ice moon Europa through international crowd-research and participation.”

mars-one-brian-versteegIf this is beginning to sound a little bit like Mars One – a similar space organization looking to send volunteers to Mars – then chances are you’ve been paying attention! In terms of their purpose, objectives, and the fact that the trips they are planning would be a one-way, the two organizations are very similar. But even more interesting is what these and other space organizations like them represent.

In an age when private space travel and exploration are beginning in earnest, crowdfunded, volunteer groups are emerging with the common goal of making things happen ahead of anyone else’s schedule. Whereas space was once the exclusive province of government-sanctioned and funded agencies, now the public is stepping in to assume a measure of control.

And thanks to new media and communications, the money, talent, and energy needed are all available. It’s just a matter of bringing them all together!


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?