While “Breakthrough Starshot” just announced plans for a groundbreaking mission to hunt for extraterrestrial life light-years away, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have set their sights on a spot in our own neighbourhood — Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Europa, which is only a quarter the size of Earth, contains more ice and water than our entire planet.
Previous missions to this moon suggested that it might harbour deep, vast liquid oceans beneath it’s icy surface — oceans that might just be habitable to life.
Which is why KCET’s Cara Santa Maria talked to some of these scientists to get an exclusive look at the next mission. Her segment airs tonight at 8 p.m. EDT on the show “SoCal Connected.” You can stream it on KCET.org.
A tantalising water world
Europa, located 390 million miles from Earth, is one of Jupiter’s 67 known moons. It’s 350 degrees below zero and has no atmosphere, which means the moon is constantly bombarded with cosmic radiation. But while human beings wouldn’t fare well in this subfreezing, radiation-bathed environment, scientists believe that beneath thick layers of ice, Europa could harbour a different form of life.
Scientists want to know everything about Europa’s ocean, from its depth to its chemistry to whether or not it contains carbon and other elements that we know to be needed for life, Astrobiologist Kevin Hand tells KCET.
One day soon, scientists hope to get a closer look at Europa. By 2022, JPL plans to send a spacecraft to Jupiter to learn more about its ability to accommodate life. Because the intense radiation surrounding Europa would toast any curious spacecraft that gets too close, it would have to orbit Jupiter and pass by the moon 45 times over a three-year period to map it and set the stage for future rover missions.
Until then, researchers are doing everything they can to answer these questions here at home. In his lab at JPL, Hand is simulating Europa’s harsh environment using instruments like vacuum pumps to recreate it’s severe temperature, pressure, and other conditions.
Aquatic robots in space
Once scientists get a better picture of Europa, the next step is to get a little wet.
NASA’s Buoyant Rover for Under Ice Exploration (BRUIE) is a robot that is used in the icy waters of Antarctica and Montana to test conditions it might experience in Europa’s waters. It is the first machine ever built that’s designed to explore extraterrestrial oceans. Scientists hope it can serve as a prototype for a rover that will one day swim the frigid waters of Europa.
The ultimate goal is to answer the question of whether Europa’s oceans can sustain any lifeforms. Scientists at JPL believe that if there is life lurking in the chilly waters of Europa, it would hint that life might be common throughout the universe.