The U.S. space agency, NASA, is looking at the idea of sending a robot lander to Jupiter’s ice-covered moon, Europa, figuring it’s the most likely place in the solar system to harbor extraterrestrial life.
That idea has now taken a big step forward with a NASA study group report
detailing what a trip to Europa would be like. Europa presents a tantalizing target because scientists believe there’s a large ocean of liquid water under the icy crust, water that could be home to some kind of life.
"If, one day, humans send a robotic lander to the surface of Europa, we need to know what to look for and what tools it should carry," said Robert Pappalardo, the study's lead author, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
"There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa, but studies like these will help us focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations,” he said. “Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life."
This graphic shows a possible robotic lander for a future mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.
Some key questions posed in the paper included what makes up the reddish “freckles” and cracks that have been viewed on Europa’s surface.
While scientists have gotten detailed imagery from NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1979 and NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the mid-to-late 1990s, they need better photos “on a human scale” to provide a better context about Europa’s composition.
Another question is about the geological activity on the moon. Before a landing could be made, scientists would need to know how active the surface is and “how much rumbling is there from the periodic gravitational squeezes” from Jupiter.
"Landing on the surface of Europa would be a key step in the astro-biological investigation of that world," said Chris McKay, a senior editor of the journal Astrobiology, who is based at NASA Ames Research Center in California. "This paper outlines the science that could be done on such a lander. The hope would be that surface materials, possibly near the linear crack features, include biomarkers carried up from the ocean."
The paper appears in the journal Astrobiology
Here's a video about Europa: