Thomas Zurbuchen, who serves as associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, was understandably pumped with the news.
“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,” Zurbuchen said in a 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.”
Europa is one of the most, if not the most, attractive exploration targets in the solar system. All the science tells us there’s an ocean lurking beneath its icy shell. While much smaller than Earth, Europa is believed to have a much bigger ocean. Beneath the miles thick ice, a salty ocean extends to depths of 100 kilometers or more according to NASA.
The Europa Clipper will hunt for signatures of potential life at altitudes as low as 16 miles above the surface. A thermal instrument will look for any recent eruptions on Europa’s surface. Other instruments will be looking for evidence of water and tiny particles in the moon’s thin atmosphere. And a magnetometer will measure the strength and direction of the moon’s magnetic field. This will tell scientists how deep and salty the ocean is.
While this will be the first in-depth exploration of Europa, it’s also being done from afar. Which also means we’re unlikely to get a definitive answer on the question of life. The Europa Clipper will instead offer insight into the potential for life on Europa. What’s the environment like? What’s the chemical makeup of the likely plumes erupting from its surface? How deep exactly is its ocean? The answers to those questions are vital to getting to the answer to the ultimate question. Is there life outside of Earth?
The presence of liquid water on Europa can’t be understated. Wherever there’s water on Earth, we find life. Is the same true for Europa? The Europa Clipper will start gathering the data to answer that question when it launches in the early to mid-2020s. A launch could happen as early as 2023, but a launch window is open until 2025.
A lander was expected to follow closely behind the Europa Clipper, but that has been delayed until 2030 at the earliest according to Science.
Right now, the Europa Clipper is looking good for a launch next decade. Cross your fingers the rest of the review process goes as smoothly.