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NASA Ponders Life-Seeking Mission to Europa Moon

This artist's concept shows a simulated view from the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. Europa's potentially rough, icy surface, tinged with reddish areas that scientists hope to learn more about, can be seen in the foreground. The giant planet Jupiter looms over the horizon.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s concept shows a simulated view from the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Europa’s potentially rough, icy surface, tinged with reddish areas that scientists hope to learn more about, can be seen in the foreground. The giant planet Jupiter looms over the horizon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With tantalizing hints of a global salty ocean lying beneath a layer of fractured ice, Jupiter‘s moon Europa has been catapulted to the top of the list of suitable homes for ETs in the solar system.

Now NASA has begun mapping out what a future mission to this intriguing worldlet may look like.

A new paper by leading planetary researchers released this week in the journal Astrobiology details plans for a possible lander being launched sometime in the next decade. The vehicle would boast a drill and microscope camera, similar to instruments aboard Mars Curiosity and Cassini (see Curiosity’s top five discoveries).

“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,” said Robert Pappalardo, the lead author of the study, and researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a press statement.

Thanks to flyby robotic missions of Voyager in the 1980s and a Gallileo probe in the 1990s, Europa is thought to have a hidden ocean formed by tidal forces from nearby Jupiter’s massive gravitational effect that heats the moon’s interior. What has particularly excited researchers as potential spots to search for possible microbial life are dark, red-tainted fractures scattered across the moon’s icy shell that suggest that dirty, briny water has welled up and frozen on the moon’s surface. (See also “Great Lakes” Discovered on Jupiter Moon?)

Ruddy colored icy slush froma  hidden ocean erupting onto the fractured surface of Europa. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk
Ruddy-colored, icy slush from a hidden ocean erupting into fractures that pepper the surface of Europa. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

NASA scientists have many questions surrounding these strange features.

What makes up the reddish “freckles” and cracks that stain the icy surface? What kind of chemistry is occurring there? Are there organic molecules, which are among the building blocks of life? (Related: “Could Jupiter Moon Harbor Fish-Size Life?”)

“Landing on the surface of Europa would be a key step in the astrobiological investigation of that world,” said Chris McKay, a senior editor of the journal Astrobiology who is based at NASA Ames Research Center in California.

“This paper outlines the science that could be done on such a lander,” said McKay. “The hope would be that surface materials, possibly near the linear crack features, include biomarkers carried up from the ocean.”

NASA’s Juno probe—which will go into orbit around the Jupiter system in 2016—will probably be tasked in helping to pin down potential landing sites for a Europa lander, thanks to its high resolution cameras.

 

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

Comments

  1. Peter Kalmus
    August 12, 1:52 pm

    One of these commenters seriously compared colonizing another world to building a microwave oven or a telephone. Really? The ability to make a microwave implies that we will soon be colonizing another world? Another says “definitely there must be a way to upgrade the Martian air….”

    Neither Mars nor Europa have anything near the resources needed for human civilization. Earth’s biosphere supplies us food, water, oxygen, medicinal plants, a perfect climate, and protection from the harsh environment of space. The nearby sun provides us all the energy we need. None of this (apart from perhaps water) is available on either Mars or Europa.

    We might see a human step onto Mars in our lifetime, we might not. We will certainly not see a permanent colony there. (We can’t even do it on Earth, as Biosphere 2 proved. And of course this means “terraforming” is science fiction at its most fiction.) But even if we “make it” to Mars, the next step, to even the closest star, is 1000 times larger than the step we took going from Atlantic crossings to Mars crossings. We might well find a planet that looks tantalizingly habitable in our “Galactic neighborhood”: finding exoplanets is currently one of the hottest fields in astrophysics. Getting there would be quite another matter.

    I enjoy dreaming of Europa as much as the next person, but this expectation / desire to fulfill our manifest destiny to the stars in the next generation or two comes from the deepest recesses of our collective worldview, the myth of progress. Many of the comments here have no grounding in reality whatsoever. They are pure and unexamined emanations of that myth.

    I was so struck by this that I had to comment.

  2. Wondering Earthling
    USA
    December 4, 2013, 9:16 am

    It’s about time. Knowing Mars is continually bathed in lethal radiation makes it a very un-interesting place, no mater how much NASA tries it hype it up about evidence of water. In contrast, Europa appears to be covered in a warm ocean of water. What the blazes are we waiting for? NASA needs to refocus or get the H out of the way.

  3. Cal
    October 7, 2013, 8:48 pm

    Space travel is fascinating and exciting. It is new and wondrous and holds so much potential! Perhaps neither my children nor I will ever leave the confines of Earth, but maybe my grandchildren or great grandchildren will!And maybe humans will never be able to settle on Europa, but someday, somewhere, we will find a new place to settle that will extend the boundaries of human existence and human knowledge.

  4. Charles Payton
    Dade City FL
    October 4, 2013, 1:30 pm

    I think the very idea of a possible lander or rover type vehicle being sent to Europa in the next decade is very exciting. I think the most ideal scenario would be creating a large enough hole in the ice and getting some sort of small submarine into the ocean underneath. Obviously its surface would be very important also. It just seems like the best shot at finding life will be at under the ice in the water. Even if the life is only microbial in form, it would be most exciting!

  5. Jonas
    September 25, 2013, 5:23 pm

    Europa didn’t end so well for humans last time I watched “Prometheus” lol

  6. BRAINY
    MEX
    September 25, 2013, 2:09 am

    even better if you install a laser to send and receive data on the surface of EUROPA. If you find WATER you can probably leave some kind of submarine device and can power itself with the environment.

  7. Justin
    Charleston S.C., U.S.
    September 11, 2013, 10:05 pm

    Space travel is fascinating. Space is the only thing that humans have very little knowledge about other than the human brain, and hire it works. We are venturing into a whole new frontier. Will Europa ever be habitable for humans? Probably not. But it is a conquest that us humans must make to feed or hunger for knowledge and understanding. I do believe that one day humans will reach the point of space travel. I do not believe it will be in the next 100 years as someone commented previously. The means of finding a renewable resource to power a so called ” space station” in places with little to no light, no wind, or water sources, is far beyond any human thought. The day will come though, the day will come. As far as Europa goes, I feel the freezing temperatures would be way to harsh for human life.

  8. Dan
    London
    August 31, 2013, 9:07 pm

    I say YES, go ahead, the earth is dying, becouse us humans can’t get enough, it’s in our gens to consume, that’s how the Mother Nature has made/created/planed name it how you like, but we are capable of far MORE than just devour, we are capable to CREATE and change the course of our own destiny, and YES YES YES I say YES go ahead, search every single planet/moon leave no stone/rock unturned, give us humans a new hope, a new world, a new home!

  9. James
    Perrysburg
    August 16, 2013, 4:07 pm

    Going to Europa seems like a fascinating idea on the face ofit. It is understandable about looking for new natural resources–the issue might be exploitation versus need for a burgeoning population. Consider the record: we continue to decimate and destroy what we have and are now running out of living space. What will we do if (perhaps when) we discover a culture with similar motivations but a different physiognomy–take their land and resources in the name of God and country only to find that our discovery has become an adversary far more potent, similar to events in the movie “Oblivion”. How to recoup what has been lost? The issues are there in front of our eyes. The issues could be analogous to the homeless man on the street. His life becomes threatened as he has no food or shelter and he must make dire decisions to perpetuate his own life while facing the law or lack of resources. Malthus made some interesting points about man, ethics, limited resources and survival. Ethics becomes a nicety in the face of the desperation of need.

    .

  10. Connor Derfoldy
    south africa
    August 15, 2013, 8:44 pm

    Regardless of how we all may feel possitive or negative of this, all we can do is accept that as a species we’ll be entering a space-age within the next 100 years. And not a moment later if you ask yourself, over-population, deminished resources and various ecological issues are driving us. This is nessasary, “it always gets worse before it gets better” is a phrase for a reason. Over time we will spread out and map unknown space as past humans mapped out earth in the early years. An when the time comes, the technology an knowledge we will have gained will allow us to return our own world to former health. It may not be in our life times that frequent an casual space-travel will be available, but you can’t lie to yourself, it’s certainly a good feeling, knowing a collective imagination will become reality, just the same as the once dreamt telephone or microwave we take for granted today. Keep moving forward, who knows, we may even discover another species from another universe stumbling blindly in the dark as we are :)

  11. Johhny B Goode
    Western Canada
    August 13, 2013, 3:40 pm

    Planets like Mars and moons like Europa cannot be made habitable. They would need a magnetosphere, to shield the Sun’s (or Jupiter’s) radiation. Without that, we would all die a horrible death. No amount of breathable atmosphere would help this.

  12. Cherae
    US
    August 12, 2013, 3:28 pm

    I think we need to focus on taking care of the planet we have rather than swarming others or changing them to fit our needs. We have a use and toss mentality and we will continue to destroy that which we touch if we keep it up. I am all for less spending on exploration and such for more spending on cleaning up what we have to make it better!

  13. Mike Treece
    August 12, 2013, 7:31 am

    What a wonderful gift to be able to dream and then to be able to turn that dream into reality. Realizing the dream to reaching out and touch the stars! To leave our home for new shores!

  14. Dave Bowman
    Io
    August 11, 2013, 7:46 pm

    ALL THESE WORLDS
    ARE YOURS EXCEPT
    EUROPA
    ATTEMPT NO
    LANDING THERE

  15. vinay atri
    DELHI
    August 10, 2013, 7:13 am

    NICE TO GOOD

  16. Alex
    Malaysia
    August 10, 2013, 12:46 am

    I’m 26. NASA, please go to europa beforeI die :(

  17. J.
    Columbus
    August 8, 2013, 3:38 pm

    There is a movie called the Europa Report that outlines how good or bad a mission to Europa could be. The movie forces you to ponder some very interesting thoughts.

  18. Omkar T Tupe.
    Kalyan(INDIA)
    August 8, 2013, 1:51 pm

    This is really wondering thing . Originally what reason behind it for formayion?

  19. Raj
    Madurai
    August 8, 2013, 1:29 pm

    It is better to make Mars habitable. The chemical composition of its atmosphere should be altered by setting off a chain chemical reactions so that the martian air has more oxygen and lessor methane or CO2.. Definitely there must be a way to upgrade the martian air so that it can be a habitable planet.