On Monday at the State of NASA address, administrator Charles Bolden laid out the focus of the space administration, including some exciting mission news. Some of the items that were included in the address were the Orion capsule, the new Commercial Crew program, and the Space Launch System. However, the biggest news that excited a lot of people was news about NASA planning a mission to the fourth largest moon of Jupiter, Europa.
Planning for a trip to Mars, returning to the moon and capturing an asteroid all are cool objectives for the public to hear about, but the inclusion of a robotic mission to one of Jupiter’s moon was exciting news. Experts believe that Europa is the most likely body away from Earth in the solar system that has a chance to sustain or host life.
Beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa has hidden oceans which have enticed astronomers and drawn NASA to planning a mission. While the moon is located so far away from the warming rays of the sun, gravitational pulls causes the oceans tides to rise and lower, causing a warming friction, heating the surface of Europa under the ice, keeping the ocean melted and in motion. Scientists believe that laying on the floor of Europa’s oceans are hydrothermal vents, adding to potential warmth. The belief is also that the icy surface of the moon consists of tectonic like plates.
All of Jupiter’s moons are hit with a large amount of radiation, scientists have researched data collected about Europa’s icy surface, the belief is that the oceans are protected from any negative effects. This gives the scientists hope that under the ice, the waters of the oceans may be a potential biosphere, full of life. Scientists believe that the radiation may actually react with the frozen crust, forming potential nutrients that could sustain life. While this is only a theory, it is still backed by plausible science and highly possible according to scientists. The only way to know for sure would to be a closer look at Europa, and that would mean a mission to the icy moon.
Kevin Hand, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the deputy chief scientist for the Solar System Exploration division stated that they believe that Europa’s ocean environment is not that harsh. This leads to the potential for life or the ability to sustain life under the icy surface of the moon.
Using a probe, NASA plans on a flyby mission of the moon that will consist of low-orbit passes. These passes by the Europa Clipper probe would collect more data on the icy surface of the moon and potentially collect more important data about the oceans bellow the surface. Hand stated that NASA is not specifically looking bellow the icy surface of Europa for life, but the potential for sustaining life, the habitability of the moon.
For years, any potential mission to Europa have been stalled due to lack of funding. NASA is hoping that new funding will restart the missions and make them official and move them forward into the next phase. This would include moving forward with design of vehicles, building the scientific teams and design instruments needed for NASA to plan a mission to Jupiter’s moon of Europa.
By Carl Auer