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: 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!

Source: news.cnet.com