NASA plans to land on Jupiter’s moon Europa and look for life

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NASA could launch a landing probe to explore a Jovian moon called Europa that is the most likely candidate for hosting life in the Solar System after Earth, the agency’s scientists announced during a Space conference.

NASA’s forthcoming space mission could shed light on one of the most intriguing places relatively close to our planet by employing a landing probe capable of closely examining the orbital body’s icy surface, which hides a giant ocean that might just harbor life, Space.com reports.

Past studies have shown that this icy world has a huge sub-surface ocean that is twice as deep as the deepest spot in Earth’s oceans. It has existed for billions of years, being almost as old as the Solar System itself. Additionally, it is in contact with the moon’s rocky mantle, which enables chemical reactions that can lead to the conception of life.

The conditions on Europa have long intrigued scientists, making the icy moon number one in the astrobiologists’ destination wish list.

Now, NASA is getting closer to satisfying this curiosity, as it is planning to add a landing probe to its Europa space mission, which is scheduled to launch in the 2020s. The main focus of the mission will be to study the Jovian moon from orbit, but NASA is now eyeing surface exploration as well.

“We are actively pursuing the possibility of a lander,” Robert Pappalardo, Europa project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said during a panel discussion at the Space 2015 conference earlier this month.

NASA is now analyzing the possible costs of adding a surface module to its mission.

“NASA has asked us to investigate: What would it take? How much would it cost? Could we put a small surface package on Europa with this mission?” Robert Pappalardo said.

The American space agency also contacted their counterparts in Europe with a proposal to take part in the mission and contribute to a lander, ice-penetrating impactor, or other aspects of a possible surface part of the mission, Spaceflight Now reported in April.

The Europa mission itself is already in the American space agency’s books and could be launched as early as 2022, Space.com reports.

The initial idea of the NASA’s mission was to extensively study the Jovian icy moon from above. A robotic spacecraft will reach Europa’s orbit and then perform 45 flybys of the moon over about two and a half years.

The spacecraft will use as many as nine different tools to study the icy world, including high-resolution cameras, a heat detector, and ice-penetrating radar. Scientists believe it will give them plenty of new data about Europa’s composition, the nature of its sub-surface ocean, as well as its ability to host life similar to that which we know on Earth, Space.com reports, citing NASA officials.

The mission is also expected to serve as a reconnaissance mission to facilitate future landings, as getting to the ice world may be really challenging, according to the NASA specialists.

“We actually don’t know what the surface of Europa looks like at the scale of this table, at the scale of a lander — if it’s smooth, if it’s incredibly rough, if it’s full of spikes,” Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA’s Washington headquarters, said during a June news conference announcing the mission’s science payload.

“Without knowing what the surface even looks like, it’s difficult to design a lander that could survive,” he added.

Nevertheless, as a landing probe would only be a low-cost addition to the total cost of the mission and not a separate expensive project, NASA could risk it anyway. The final decision is expected by the end of 2015, Robert Pappalardo said.