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Jupiter's Europa: NASA Chooses New Instruments to Search for Life

May 27, 2015 12:34 PM EDT
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Jupiter's moon Europa has in recent years given scientists hope that it harbors conditions suitable for life, so in a bid to explore this possibility further, on Tuesday, NASA chose nine high-tech instruments for a mission to search for life on this mysterious icy world.

NASA's Galileo mission showed strong evidence that Europa, which is about the size of Earth's moon, has an ocean beneath a frozen crust of unknown thickness. If this theory is proven correct, that means the ocean could boast more than twice the amount of water as on Earth - known as the Blue Planet. With abundant salt water, a rocky sea floor, icy plate tectonics, and the energy and chemistry provided by tidal heating, Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present-day life.

"Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a news release. "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."

The mission, expected to launch in the 2020s, will carry a suite of instruments that includes cameras, heat mappers, chemical analyzers, ice-penetrating radar and a sample collector that may be able to directly study particles from Europa's underground ocean that are shot into space in an erupting plume. Together, these and other technologies will be able to determine the thickness of Europa's icy shell and search for subsurface lakes, as well as measure the strength and direction of the moon's magnetic field, which will allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean.

"If we do find life, or indications of life, that will be an enormous step forward in our understanding of our place in the Universe. If there's life in the solar system, and in Europa in particular, it must be everywhere in our galaxy and perhaps even in the Universe," Grunsfeld told CBC News.

The nine instruments, selected from 33 proposals, will cost NASA about $110 million over the next three years, a small part of the projected $2 billion price tag for the mission.

"This is a giant step in our search for oases that could support life in our own celestial backyard," Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in the release. "We're confident that this versatile set of science instruments will produce exciting discoveries on a much-anticipated mission."

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