Last week, NASA announced that it had commenced assembly of the Europa Clipper space probe, which will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2024 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
But once the probe is on its way to the outer planets, a new countdown will commence — one that could change everything we know about life in the universe.
After the Europa Clipper arrives at the Jupiter system, it will begin its analysis of the icy moon, and potentially reveal that a moon inside our solar system has conditions primed for native life to form.
In other words, we might know that the surface of Jupiter's moon is seeping out the chemicals essential to life as we know it, in 2030.
Life on Europa would mean life on other alien worlds
The SUV-sized space probe with wings the size of a basketball court, will enable us to comprehend the viability of life on ocean worlds — both in our solar system, and beyond. "If there is life in Europa, it almost certainly was completely independent from the origin of life on Earth... that would mean the origin of life must be pretty easy throughout the galaxy and beyond," said Project Scientist Robert Pappalardo, on NASA's official Europa Clipper page.
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As of writing, scientists have achieved a broad consensus that Europa is home to an internal ocean with twice the amount of water in all of Earth's ocean, and that it may even have conditions that make it suitable for supporting life. But it took a long wait for the mission — which was greatly assisted by the Planetary Society's efforts — to receive the official green light from NASA in 2015, according to a Planetary Society blog post.
How the Europa clipper will probe the moon for life
When the Europa Clipper probe reaches Jupiter, it will orbit the gas giant instead of directly syncing up with Europa, keeping itself outside of the gas giant's immense radiation field for most of its journey. Occasionally, it will venture close to the icy moon for a quick "clip" or flyby, and then perform rapid data collection before zooming away and escaping Jupiter's radiation.
This "guerilla-war" style of observation might seem excessively roundabout, but it will also enable the Europa Clipper to observe the moon for years, instead of just months, or days.
In a similar fashion to NASA's Cassini mission, which sent back stunning images of Jupiter before crashing into its atmosphere, the Europa Clipper probe will make multiple close flybys of Europa in order to gather data regarding the moon's atmosphere, surface, and interior. The instruments aboard the spacecraft will investigate the depth and salinity of the ocean as well as the depth of ice on its surface.
The probe will use a radar instrument to map Europa's ice, and employ a magnetometer to examine the immense depths and salinity of the icy moon's potentially vast oceans. Infrared and color cameras will generate a highly detailed color map of the moon's surface, and scientists will use this data to look for "hot spots," where some of the ocean water might seep up through the tightly packed ice shell.
Plumbing the depths for a paradigm shift - The surface's composition will be examined by spectrometers, in addition to emerging plumes blasting water into the reaches of Jovian space. The Europa Clipper can also directly analyze samples of Europa's extremely thin atmosphere — soaring through regions where residual particles of ocean water may remain. Sadly, there's no guarantee that life signs will emerge from this mission, which is why it will also scout possible landing sites for future missions to touch down, which could subsequently dig into (or even through) the icy shell and plumb the depths that may be teeming with alien life, and a paradigm shift for all of humanity.
Additional reporting by Brad Bergan.