Researchers plot mission to Europa

A lander would search for signs of life on Europa
A lander would search for signs of life on Europa
Image: Artist's concept, NASA.
It's not as though NASA is prepared to explore Europa tomorrow. But scientists at the space agency are laying the groundwork to send a robotic lander to the Jovian moon.
    In a recent report, scientists describe Jupiter’s moon, Europa, as “a prime target in our exploration of potentially habitable worlds beyond Earth.” The NASA study, available online, is part of an early effort to outline the goals and challenges of the mission. Here is the rundown:

Three goals: The report is direct. The highest-level science goal of the mission presented here is to search for evidence of life on Europa.” The second goal is to assess the habitability of Europa.And the third goal is to “characterize the surface and subsurface to enable future robotic exploration,” according to the report.

The environment: Europa is about the size of our moon -- but scientists believe it has an ocean. The NASA report describes the ocean as “liquid water” and “global.” It is approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) deep, beneath at least a 25-kilometer (15-mile) ice shell. The floor of the ocean is thought to be a “rocky, silicate seafloor, which may lead to an ocean rich in the elements and energy needed for the emergence of life, and for potentially sustaining life through time,” the report says.

But could a mission find signs of life on an ice shell? Theoretically, yes, it could. "If life is present in Europa’s ice at a level comparable to one of the most extreme and desolate of environments on Earth (Lake Vostok ice) then this mission could detect life in Europa’s icy surface.” (Lake Vostok is a subglacial lake in Antarctica.) Later, the report explains: “The initial search for signs of life on Europa will largely take the form of a biochemical search -- both via remote sensing and with in situ analyses conducted by the lander.”

A high-tech lander: A spacecraft for the mission would come equipped with analytical equipment that “performs quantitative organic compositional, microscopic and spectroscopic analysis on five samples acquired from at least 10 cm (centimeters -- 4 inches) beneath the surface, with supporting context imaging observations.”


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