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Revealing the Europa mysteries requires a careful choice of instruments – and $30 million

It’s not every day on work you get to plan for an exploration trip to one of Jupiter’s moons, with the simple mission target to try and find life supporting water. Now NASA has applied for $30 million for their 2016 budget, so they can launch the journey to Europa in 2020, and investigate what they describe as what might be the best possibility in our solar system to find life outside of our own planet.

When sending off the solar powered spacecraft on its long adventure, the ground team needs to equip it with all it may need to be able to properly discern wether what if finds on Europa is actually ice or something else. Europa is about the size of our own moon, and scientists believe it could contain twice as much water as Earth. It was the Galilei mission by NASA that provided data which made them believe the frozen crust on Europa could cover deep oceans.

Together with the tidal, heating forces from Jupiter and what is believed to be salty water on a rocky ocean floor, chances are good to find life on this distant moon.

The nine instruments chosen to accompany the spacecraft will be used during a three year long period where it will orbit the moon about 45 times, and the craft will get as close as 16 miles (25 kilometers) from the surface.

Some of the things that will be performed are optical imaging of the surface with cameras, and determining the thickness of the icy crust of the moon with an ice penetrating radar, which will also look for lakes beneath the surface. With a magnetometer the depth and salinity of the ocean can be determined, and a thermal instrument will scan Europa for possible eruptions of warm water.

Another set of instruments will be busy trying to obtain water and other microscopic particles from the atmosphere. Back in 2012 the Hubble Space Telescope was able to observe water vapor over Europa’s south pole, which led the scientists to theorize about water plumes. This discovery is now shaping the upcoming investigations, hopefully leading to a minimized need to drill through the ice layers, as the team could rather focus on determining the chemical characteristics of the environment, to see if it is indeed habitable.

Image: NASA