NASA is working hard on a variety of scientific missions and has big plans to send a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Europa has long been thought to be one of the most likely locations to hold life outside of the Earth in our solar system. NASA is gearing up to launch the mission by the mid 2020s thanks to a boosted budget that it received for 2016.
On Monday, during his “State of NASA” speech, administrator Charles Bolden announced that NASA will be selecting projects to accompany a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Floating in space about 390 million miles from earth, Europa is a remote ice ball that harbors a massive ocean underneath its surface. So massive, in fact, that scientists suspect Europa could have as much as two to three times more liquid water than Earth!
Previously, all of NASA proposed mission concepts have had failings – either being too small or too big, for example – but the Europa Clipper mission is “just right”, JPL scientist Robert Pappalardo, said.
The Europa Clipper mission would conduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter’s moon Europa. It would investigate whether or not the moon could harbour suitable conditions for life: “The mission would perform a detailed investigation of Europa using a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft that would perform repeated close flybys of the icy moon from a long, looping orbit around Jupiter.”
Costs would include science instruments to penetrate the frozen crust, to work out the thickness of the ice shell, an infrared spectrometer to look at the composition of the moon’s surface materials and cameras to look at its features.
The Clipper would perform 45 flybys of Europa at varying altitudes, the closest being about 25km above the surface.
Should the Europa Clipper spacecraft be ready for launch in the next decade, there could be a wonderful opportunity for a fast-track to Europa. Currently under development is NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a powerful rocket that could send the Clipper from Earth to Jupiter orbit in “under 3 years,” according to Pappalardo. The alternative, sending the spacecraft via a number of gravity assists around the solar system, could take 7-8 years.
Although Monday’s good budget request news is only the start of a long road to Europa, it takes the Europa Clipper from concept to planning, so hopes are high that the Europa Clipper will follow NASA’s Juno spacecraft as the next big mission to explore Jupiter’s enigmatic moon.
“We are really looking forward to next spring when, hopefully, we’ll become another flagship mission,” said Sara Susca.
Jupiter’s Europa: With a diameter of 1,900 miles, Europa is only a bit smaller than our own moon. And similar to how our moon tugs the water in our oceans, Jupiter’s massive gravitational tug causes tidal forces across Europa’s entire surface. This stretching causes cracks in the moon’s surface. But this is not the most important effect of Jupiter’s presence. Because Europa is orbiting this gas giant, the constant tug and pull generates friction. All this tidal energy causes heat to be released, and as we all know, heat helps maintain water in liquid form: that’s precisely why underneath Europa’s exquisitely beautiful icy shell, a liquid water ocean is to be found. These liquid oceans are possibly hospitable, scientists say, especially since Europa has comparable gravity to that of our own moon, causing ocean pressures to be just right for possible biological evolution.
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