Jupiter's icy moon, Europa, has long been considered as a candidate for harboring life outside of Earth in our solar system. A deep ocean and heat caused by tidal forces mean that it might just have the ideal conditions for small living organisms.
Now, NASA has announced that its Europa Clipper mission, which will search for the possibility of life on Europa, has been given the green light.
The Europa Clipper spacecraft, which will carry out several flybys of Europa is set to launch in 2025.
This is a big deal. It has taken decades to reach this point.— Casey Dreier (@CaseyDreier) August 19, 2019
JPL now begins to build the spacecraft dedicated to exploring Europa. https://t.co/MtXdmdM1Ne
In a statement, NASA announced that the mission, with an estimated cost of $2 billion, had been cleared to go into the spacecraft construction phase.
NASA also clarified that it is "targeting to have the Europa Clipper spacecraft complete and ready for launch as early as 2023. The agency baseline commitment, however, supports a launch readiness date by 2025."
Searching for life
Europa might have the ideal conditions for life; underneath its icy surface is an ocean that might be close to 200 kilometers deep. What's more, tidal interactions between the moon and Jupiter creates heat conditions that keep the moon's ocean in a liquid state.
Scientists have theorized that these heat conditions might be enough to form volcanic vents on the ocean bed; similar vents on Earth are teeming with living organisms.
Evidence from NASA's Galileo mission, which took images of Jupiter and its moons, suggests that water plumes - bringing water to the moon's surface - might make it easier to analyze Europa's ocean, without the necessity for drilling under the moon's surface.
One problem that the mission faces is that Jupiter emits intense radiation that will eventually fry the spacecraft's electronics. As the BBC reports, in order to minimize the damaging effects of the radiation, Clipper will make repeated close flybys of the moon. The other option was for the spacecraft to orbit Europa, though this would have exposed the craft to intense radiation.
Unlocking Europa's mysteries
Along with NASA's Artemis Program, this is another step in exploring our solar system and understanding our own planet, and our place in the universe.
“We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in the statement.
“We are building upon the scientific insights received from the flagship Galileo and Cassini spacecraft and working to advance our understanding of our cosmic origin, and even life elsewhere.”