Mars might be the hottest ticket in space exploration right now, but for people who are concerned with finding evidence of extraterrestrial life, there’s nowhere in the solar system more important than Europa.
Jupiter’s moon harbors a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust, and just like the oceans here on Earth, Europa’s sits atop a rocky ocean floor. It’s this combination that makes the icy moon a prime candidate for taking our hunt for alien life to the next level; if organisms do exist in Europa’s ocean, there’s a high chance they are making their way to the moon’s surface by way of water plumes that spray upwards like an extraterrestrial Old Faithful. While life could not be sustained outside on Europa’s surface, we now have the technology to detect traces of any organic material that may have been thrown out from underneath Europa’s crust. Now, NASA is weighing up their options for a mission that would see a lander placed on Europa’s surface with the express goal of finding these signs of alien life.
(An artist’s rendering of the planned robotic lander – Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
This would be the first time since the 1970’s that NASA has directly looked for life on another planetary body. And, if you needed any indication of the enormity of such a task, you should consider the fact that scientists are still trying to interpret the results of NASA’s last attempt, the Viking landers on Mars. When Viking looked for life on Mars, it caused a big stir in the scientific community. One instrument found what was thought to be signs of organic life, but the others failed to corroborate the findings. It was a scenario that almost single-handedly put Mars ground exploration on hold.
40 years on, NASA is discussing the viability of a Europa lander mission with experts both inside and outside the agency. Yesterday, NASA released a report outlining the goals for a Europa lander mission as well as the tools that will deliver the results. The 264-page report suggests a mission that would launch on the back of NASA’s new delivery system, the SLS (Space Launch System), as soon as 2024.
While the details of the mission remain open to debate and change, the lander could be setting down on Europa as early as 2031. Once there, it’s expected that it will drill into the surface and collect samples of the ice. Those samples will then be analyzed with a highly sensitive tool “capable of distinguishing microbial cells as small as 0.2 microns in diameter, and as dilute as 100 cells per cubic centimeter,” says the report.
Finding signs of organic life is just one of three primary goals for the Europa lander mission. Assessing the habitability of the moon as well as gathering more data on its composition will make this mission the building block for future exploration of what is one of the most exciting planetary bodies in our solar system.