NASA is set to open discussions about a study that has proposed a system capable of landing on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa in search for life beyond Earth.
The study that NASA commissioned last year to assess the science value and engineering design of a future Europa lander mission submitted its report this week. The report listed three science goals for the mission – the primary being search for evidence of life on Europa, the US space agency said.
The other goals are to assess the habitability of Europa by directly analysing material from the surface and to characterise the surface and subsurface to support future robotic exploration of Europa and its ocean. The report also described some of the notional instruments that could be expected to perform measurements in support of these goals.
To discuss the report and receive feedback from the wider science community, NASA announced two upcoming meetings scheduled for March and April. Europa, slightly smaller than Earth’s moon, is widely believed by scientists to be having a global saltwater ocean beneath its icy crust.
This ocean has at least twice as much water as Earth’s oceans. While recent discoveries have shown that many bodies in the solar system either have subsurface oceans now, or may have had in the past, Europa is one of only two places where the ocean is understood to be in contact with a rocky seafloor (the other being Saturn’s moon Enceladus).
This rare circumstance makes Europa one of the highest priority targets in the search for present-day life beyond Earth. The team for this study was tasked with developing a life-detection strategy in Europa, a first for a NASA mission since the Mars Viking mission era more than four decades ago.
The report makes recommendations on the number and type of science instruments that would be required to confirm if signs of life are present in samples collected from the icy moon’s surface. The team also worked closely with engineers to design a system capable of landing on a surface about which very little is known.
Given that Europa has no atmosphere, the team developed a concept that could deliver its science payload to the icy surface without the benefit of technologies like a heat shield or parachutes, NASA said.