Long before any NASA mission has liftoff, the agency commissions research to determine how feasible and useful a particular effort would be.
Now, the latest report has been handed down for a potential mission that would send a lander to drill into the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Its primary goal? To look for signs of extraterrestrial life.
“Europa may hold the clues to one of NASA’s long standing goals—to determine whether or not we are alone in the universe,” states the report.
Out of the three main science goals outlined for the mission, the two others will be to analyse the moon’s surface and see how habitable it is, as well as get characteristics of the surface and what’s underneath to assist potential future robots who would be sent there for exploration.
“Scientists agree that the evidence is quite strong that Europa, which is slightly smaller than Earth's moon, has a global saltwater ocean beneath its icy crust,” says a statement by NASA. “This ocean has at least twice as much water as Earth's oceans.”
Because this ocean is in contact with a rocky seafloor, giving it potential for all kinds of chemical reactions, Europa is a prime candidate for the search of extraterrestrial life.
Artist's rendering shows a conceptual design for a potential future mission to land a robotic probe on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.
IMAGE CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The team tasked with designing the mission has recommended a number of instruments we would need to confirm signs of such life in any samples collected. For example, the lander would drill down four inches (10 centimetres) into the crust.
The Europa lander would be stationary, with a mission to collect as many samples as possible during the roughly 20 days of operation before its batteries die. The data would then be sent back to Earth for analysis.
In terms of a timeline, don’t hold your breath for an announcement of alien life in this decade or even the next. The report suggests that to put the lander on Europa in April 2031, the mission would have to be launched as early as 2024.
So far all of this is conceptual. Before we can even get that far, NASA needs to complete its solar-powered flyby mission of Europa, a plan still in development but set for a launch in the early 2020s. This mission will put a spacecraft in an orbit around Jupiter, completing a series of 45 flybys of the icy moon. Information gathered by this spacecraft will lay the foundation for any Europa landing in the future.
You can read the complete Europa Lander Study Report on the NASA resource website.