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?)
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.