Mission to Europa: NASA now Taking Suggestions

europa_moon_IoJupiter’s moon of Europa has been the subject of much speculation and intrigue ever since it was first discovered by Galileo in 1610. In addition to having visible sources of (frozen) surface water and a tenuous oxygen atmosphere, it is also believed to boast interior oceans that could very well support life. As evidence for this mounts, plans to explore Europa using robot landers, miners, submersibles, or even manned missions have been floated by various sources.

However, it was this past December when astronomers announced that water plumes erupting 161 kilometers (100 miles) high from the moon’s icy south pole that things really took a turn. It was the best evidence to date that Europa, heated internally by the powerful tidal forces generated by Jupiter’s gravity, has a deep subsurface ocean. In part because of this, NASA recently issued a Request for Information (RFI) to science and engineering communities for ideas for a mission to the enigmatic moon. Any ideas need to address fundamental questions about the subsurface ocean and the search for life beyond Earth.

europa-lander-2This is not the first time that NASA has toyed with the idea of investigating the Jovian moon for signs of life. Last summer, an article by NASA scientists was published in the peer-reviewed journal Astrobiology, which was entitled “Science Potential from a Europa Lander“. This article set out their research goals in more detail, and speculated how they might be practically achieved. At the time, the article indicated NASA’s ongoing interest, but this latest call for public participation shows that the idea is being taken more seriously.

This is positive news considering that NASA’s planned JIMO mission – Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter, which was cancelled in 2005 – would be taking place by this time next year. Originally slated for launch between May and January of 2015/16, the mission involved sending a probe to Jupiter by 2021, which would then deploy landers to Callisto, Ganymede, Io and Europa for a series of 30 day studies. At the end of the mission in 2025, the vehicle would be parked in a stable orbit around Europa.

JIMO_Europa_Lander_MissionJohn Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, had the following to say in a recent press release:

This is an opportunity to hear from those creative teams that have ideas on how we can achieve the most science at minimum cost… Europa is one of the most interesting sites in our solar system in the search for life beyond Earth. The drive to explore Europa has stimulated not only scientific interest but also the ingenuity of engineers and scientists with innovative concepts.

By opening the mission up to public input, it also appears that NASA is acknowledging the nature of space travel in the modern age. As has demonstrated with Chris Hadfield’s mission aboard the ISS, the Curiosity rover, as well as private ventures such as Mars One, Inspiration Mars, and Objective Europa  – the future of space exploration and scientific study will involve a degree of social media and public participation never before seen.

europa_reportThe RFI’s focus is for concepts for a mission that costs less than $1 billion, but will cover five key scientific objectives that are necessary to improve our understanding of this potentially habitable moon. Primarily, the mission will need to:

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

Although Europa has been visited by spacecraft and imaged distantly by Hubble, more detailed research is necessary to understand the complexities of this moon and its potential for life. NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989 was the only mission to visit Europa, passing close by the moon fewer than a dozen times. Ergo, if we’re ever to determine conclusively whether or not life exists there, we’re going to have to put boots (robotic or human) onto the surface and start digging!

To read the full Decadal Survey report on NASA’s website, click here.

Sources: universetoday.com, IO9.com, science.nasa.gov

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?

Source: IO9.com