A fascinating new NASA report explores how we might search for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa by sending a lander there.
Europa has long been of interest, as it’s believed to have a vast saltwater ocean beneath its icy surface, containing more water than there is on Earth – and possibly having the necessary conditions for life to exist.
With this in mind, NASA is planning to send a mission to Europa in the early 2020s called the Europa Multiple Flyby Mission (EMFM), which would perform 45 flybys of the moon and study it in detail from space.
But the dream has always been to actually send a lander to the surface to directly sample the moon. Last year, Congress gave NASA the funds to investigate how they would go about doing that, and NASA put together a team of 21 scientists in June 2016 to work it out.
Now, they’ve returned a report on a Europa Lander, separate to the EMFM. The in-depth report makes for fascinating reading, and we’d recommend checking it out, but we’ll run through some of the key points here.
“Europa may hold the clues to one of NASA’s long standing goals – to determine whether or not we are alone in the universe,” the report notes. “The highest-level science goal of the mission […] is to search for evidence of life on Europa.”
To do this, the lander would launch in 2024 or 2025 on NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, with a Carrier Relay Orbiter (CRO) traveling with it to orbit above the surface and transmit data back to Earth. Owing to the intense radiation around Jupiter, the lander and orbiter would be designed to last only about 30 days.
Once on the surface, lowered there by a powered "sky crane" similar to how Curiosity landed on Mars, a suite of instruments would allow the spacecraft to study Europa and search for life. It would collect five samples from up to 10 centimeters (4 inches) below the surface using a robotic arm, analyzing them on board.
Scientists are pretty sure Europa has a vast ocean under its surface. NASA