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spaceSpace and Physics

NASA Plans Mission To Europa

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Lisa Winter

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clockMar 6 2014, 20:09 UTC
387 NASA Plans Mission To Europa
NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

Much of the search for evidence for alien life has focused on looking for traces of ancient life on Mars, yet Europa is arguably a better candidate. NASA’s 2015 budget request from the president includes money earmarked for the pre-formulation of a mission to send a probe to one of Jupiter’s moons. There have not yet been any official announcements from the Obama administration to specifically say that they want to make a mission to Europa a priority, but requesting funds for to investigate the possibility of going is being taken as a fairly good sign. Considering NASA has been trying to get this off the ground for the last 15 years, this is some long-awaited good news.

Europa is covered in a saltwater ocean that is 100 km (62 miles) deep, covered in a crust of ice. Though it is extremely far away from the sun, it is constantly under gravitational turmoil from Jupiter itself and the other moons as it travels about its elliptical orbit. As Europa gets pulled to and fro, the iron core heats up, melting the interior ice into vast, liquid water oceans. There is believed to be more water on Europa than Earth, and some estimates say there could be twice as much. The conditions are thought to be similar to those incurred by extremophiles that live in the Arctic and Antarctic regions of Earth. 

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The Europa Clipper probe, though currently just a proposed concept mission, would orbit Jupiter and not the moon itself. It is expected to perform at least 45 flybys of Europa, with distances ranging from 2700-25 kilometer’s from the moon’s surface. It would use a host of instruments, including an infrared spectrometer, topographic camera, and an ion and neutral mass spectrometer would allow the Clipper to investigate surface and atmospheric conditions.

Last December, it was announced that NASA has found very convincing evidence of a geyser on Europa’s surface, indicating that there is a dynamic connection between the surface ice and the underlying liquid water, which also strengthens the possibility that life could exist. These geysers, if they really are there, could allow the probe easy access to the water in order to analyze its chemical composition and determine any chance of habitability.

At such an early juncture, it is hard to give any real details about how the mission would proceed, assuming it gets funding. Some have estimated that the launch could happen by 2025, and it would arrive at Europa early in the next decade. The mission is expected to cost $2 billion, which is a relative bargain considering how long it will take to develop and get the probe there.

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Of course, what the Obama administration has proposed for the budget and what ultimately gets passed through Congress could very well be different things. Though the exact amount of money slated for the Europa Clipper will not be disclosed until Monday, March 10, and this article will be updated when that information will be made available. It is estimated to be tens of millions of dollars, which has been met with a lukewarm response. Yes, it is great that the Obama administration is expressing an interest in going to Europa, but that isn’t enough money to really show they solidly support the endeavor. For now, we will just have to wait and see.


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