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NASA Europa Mission May Search for Signs of Alien Life


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A potential NASA mission to Jupiter's moon Europa may end up hunting for signs of life on the icy, ocean-harboring world.


NASA officials have asked scientists to consider ways that a Europa mission could search for evidence of alien life in the plumes of water vaporthat apparently blast into space from Europa's south polar region.


These plumes, which NASA's Hubble Space Telescope spotted in December 2012, provide a possible way to sample Europa's ocean of liquid water, which is buried beneath the moon's icy shell, researchers say. [Photos: Europa, Mysterious Icy Moon of Jupiter]


"This is our chance" to investigate whether or not life exists on Europa, NASA science chief John Grunsfeld said here Wednesday (Feb. 18) during a Europa plume workshop at the agency's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. "I just hope we don't miss this opportunity for lack of ideas."

Europa flyby mission


PinExt.pngArtist's concept of the Europa Clipper mission concept, which would send a probe to do multiple flybys of the ocean-harboring Jupiter moon.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has been working on Europa mission concepts for years. Indeed, last July, agency officials asked scientists around the world to propose instruments that could fly aboard a Europa-studying spacecraft.


The quest to explore the 1,900-mile-wide (3,100 kilometers) moon got on firmer ground earlier this month when the White House allocated $30 million in its fiscal year 2016 budget request to formulate a Europa mission. (NASA was allocated a total of $18.5 billion in the request, which must still be approved by Congress.)


NASA is zeroing in on a flyby mission design, something along the lines of a long-studied concept called the Europa Clipper. As currently envisioned, Clipper would travel to Jupiter orbit, then make 45 flybys of Europa over 3.5 years, at altitudes ranging from 16 miles to 1,700 miles (25 km to 2,700 km).


The $2.1 billion mission would study Europa's subsurface ocean, giving researchers a better understanding of the water's depth, salinity and other characteristics. The probe would also measure and map the moon's ice shell, returning data that would be useful for a future mission to the Europan surface. [Europa and Its Ocean (Video)]


And now, it appears, NASA would like to add plume sampling to the Europa mission's task list, if possible. Grunsfeld urged workshop attendees to "think outside the box" and come up with feasible ways to study the moon's plumes.


If one such idea could be incorporated into the upcoming mission, so much the better. After all, the earliest that Clipper (or whatever variant ultimately emerges) could blast off for Europa is 2022 — and, using currently operational rockets, the craft wouldn't arrive in the Jupiter system until 2030, Grunsfeld pointed out. (Use of NASA's Space Launch System megarocket, which is still in development, would cut the travel time significantly.)


And there's no telling when NASA will be able to go back to Europa. (Europe is developing its own mission called the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer, which is scheduled to launch in 2022 to study Europa and two other Jovian satellites, Ganymede and Callisto.)


Grunsfeld stressed that he and other NASA higher-ups aren't pushing to turn Clipper into a plume-centric project; the core goals of the Europa mission will remain centered on assessing the moon's ability to support life, whatever comes out of the Ames workshop.


But he doesn't want the plume opportunity to slip away for want of effort or focus.


I don't want to be sitting in my rocking chair 20 years from now and think, 'We should have done something,'" Grunsfeld, a former NASA astronaut who helped repair and service Hubble on three separate space shuttlemissions, told Space.com at the workshop.



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