While Mars may be our closest neighbor, hopes for finding life on the red planet are slim. While NASA has found evidence of past or even current liquid flows, there’s consensus that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is our best shot for finding life beyond Earth. Now, NASA’s quest to explore Europa’s icy surface moves forward out of the concept phase and into development.
“Today we’re taking an exciting step from concept to mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions.”
Europa’s claim for legitimacy isn’t without merit. The Galileo mission in the 1990s found that there’s probably a salty ocean of water beneath its icy exterior, and the energy created by tidal movements would likely provide both enough heat and chemistry for some form of life to flourish. Most recently, images from the Hubble Space Telescope hint at plumes of liquid water spouting from Europa’s surface.
As the video explains, the goal is to launch a spacecraft to Jupiter in the 2020s, accounting for a travel time of several years. Once there, the craft would do a total of 45 flybys of the planet, with plenty of opportunities to examine Europa’s density and composition. NASA has already selected the instruments the craft will carry, including cameras and spectrometers for HD images and radar to plumb the moon’s depths.
“It’s a great day for science,” said Joan Salute, Europa program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We are thrilled to pass the first major milestone in the lifecycle of a mission that will ultimately inform us on the habitability of Europa.”