The Human Journey to the Beginning of Space and Time is All-Systems-Go for Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Planetary scientists and exobiologists are planning a trip to determine if an ocean of water exists beneath its icy surface

Four hundred years ago, the astronomer Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's four large moons forever changed humanity's view of the universe, helping to bring about the understanding that Earth was not the center of all motion. Today one of these Galilean moons could again revolutionize science and our sense of place, for hidden beneath Europa's icy surface is perhaps the most promising place to look for present-day environments that are suitable for life.
Four hundred years ago, the astronomer Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s four large moons forever changed humanity’s view of the universe, helping to bring about the understanding that Earth was not the center of all motion. Today one of these Galilean moons could again revolutionize science and our sense of place, for hidden beneath Europa’s icy surface is perhaps the most promising place to look for present-day environments that are suitable for life. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Space news (July 15, 2015) – the search for life beyond Earth – With abundant water, a rocky substrate, and available heat energy due to tidal forces, Europa would be one of the best places in the solar system to search for signs of life.  

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John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Credit: NASA

Today we’re taking an exciting step from concept to a mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions.”  

Artist concept of NASA's Europa mission spacecraft approaching its target for one of many flybys. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist concept of NASA’s Europa mission spacecraft approaching its target for one of many flybys. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Europa Multiple Flyby Mission will conduct a detailed survey of the moon and its suitability for sustaining life. Estimates by planetary scientists indicate there could be as much as twice the volume of water as on Earth underneath the icy crust of this distant moon.  

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NASA astrobiologist Dr. Richard Hoover discovered this ancient moss still capable of growing and reproducing after 40,000 years beneath the Russian permafrost. Credit: (NASA/MSFC)

Could extremophiles – extreme forms of life found on Earth – exist on Europa? Some exobiologists think it could be possible forms of life found surviving and evolving in extreme environments on our planet could be tough enough. The existence of single-celled life forms in such environments would truly be a monumental point in human history.  

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NASA astrobiologist Dr. Richard Hoover retrieved this extremophile bacterium from ice dating to over 32,000 years ago. Credit: (NASA/MSFC)

Energy for living things to survive, prosper and evolve could be extracted from the environment if heat energy produced by tidal flexing of the crust of Europa is sufficient to drive chemical reactions. Chemical reactions that could recycle elements, making them available for use by living things in the battle to survive and evolve.  

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One of the oldest lifeforms still existing on the Earth, a tardigrade or “water bear” is seen through an electron microscope. Less than 1 mm in length, these hardy creatures can withstand the rigors of space travel for extended periods. They’re currently being studied to see just how tough they’re. Credit: ESA/Dr. Ralph O. Schill

Could there be life existing in the oceans of Europa? The known requirements for the existence of life, extraterrestrial or Earth-based, are still pretty basic at this point and they’ll change as we discover and learn more about what life really needs to survive, prosper and evolve.  

Cutaway diagram of Europa's interior. Artwork credit: Michael Carroll
Cutaway diagram of Europa’s interior. Artwork credit: Michael Carroll

We have waited patiently since NASA’s Galileo spacecraft first showed us oceans of water could exist beneath the icy surface of Europa. Sometime in the 2020s mankind will launch the Europa Multiple Flyby Mission to this distant moon of Jupiter in a desire to take a look.  

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The Galileo spacecraft being deployed from the cargo bay of STS-34 Atlantis at 7:15 p.m. EDT on 18th October 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL

All systems go for Europa

The trip to Europa is expected to launch from Cape Canaveral and take about 6.5 years, with gravity-assist from flybys of Venus and Earth, before arriving in the Jupiter system sometime in 2026 or 2027.  

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The Europa Orbiter above the surface of Europa, with Jupiter in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL

The mission calls for a spacecraft to flyby Europa 45 times, conducting a detailed survey and analysis of the icy surface of the moon in high-resolution images. In order to give planetary scientists more information on its composition and the environment and structure of the moon’s interior regions.  

“It’s a great day for science,” said Joan Salute, Europa program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We are thrilled to pass the first major milestone in the lifecycle of a mission that will ultimately inform us on the habitability of Europa.”  

You can follow the development of NASA’s Europa Multiple Flyby Mission here.  

You can learn more about NASA’s space mission here.  

You can discover more about Jupiter’s moon Europa here.  

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Learn about the kinds of planets space scientists are finding in four star systems.

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