NASA Selects Instruments To Send To Europa In Search Of Alien Life

Artist's concept of the orbits of the Europa flybys via NASA

ICEMAG, REASON, EIS and MASPEX may sound like superheroes from a new crime-fighting team, but they are actually scientific instruments with an out-of-this-world mission. Nine brave instruments have been selected—assembled, if you will—to go to Jupiter's glacial moon, Europa. Their quest is to send back information about the icy moon and maybe even detect signs of alien life.

“We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth,” commented John Grunsfield, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Grunsfield's excitement isn't unfounded: Europa is currently the most promising candidate for alien life in our solar system. It harbors liquid water under its water-ice crust, an essential for life on Earth, and even though it is located far away from the heat energy of the sun, it still has an energy source from Jupiter's gravitational pull.

The mission, led by NASA, is estimated to launch in the 2020s, and so far NASA has requested a budget of $30 million. This would result in a solar-powered spacecraft that would perform around 45 flybys over three years, getting as close as 25 kilometers (15 miles) above the surface.

The instruments and detectors that will be attached to the orbiter include heat detectors to spot areas with thermal activity, cameras to map the moon's surface, and radar to map hidden structures in the icy crust.

Here's the breakdown of the intrepid team:

Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG) - A magnetometer that will measure the strength of Europa's magnetic field. Combined with PIMS, it will help map out Europa's ice shell and sub-glacial oceans.

Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) - Alongside ICEMAG, PIMS will determine the thickness of Europa's ice shell, the depth of the ocean underneath and even the ocean's salinity. PIMS takes ICEMAG's data and corrects the magnetic field measurements using Europa's plasma signals. 

Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) - MISE will map the distribution of salts, organic compounds, and the phases of water and ice, to name a few. MISE will be essential in determining if any of Europa's oceans are habitable. 

Europa Imaging System (EIS) - The camera that will take wide- and narrow-angle shots of Europa's surface. 

Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) - This radar is designed to penetrate the ice crust, from the near-surface to the ocean, in order to model the hidden ice structure.

Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) - This imaging device will measure the heat emitted from Europa. This will be vital in detecting sites where there is thermal activity, such as heat vents or water plumes.

MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) - This spectrometer will figure out the composition of the moon's surface by measuring Europa's very thin atmosphere as well as any surface material that has been ejected into space.

Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) - UVS will be able to detect water plumes and the composition of the sparse atmosphere by looking in the UV spectrum. 

SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) - During low-altitude flybys, SUDA will measure the composition of solid, airborne particles ejected from Europa.

[Via NASA]


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