When NASA announced its budget proposal for fiscal 2016, developing a mission to Europa was part of it. If you don’t know much about Europa, you are probably wondering why NASA wants to go there.
Europa is one of the more unique bodies in our solar system. Orbiting Jupiter, Europa’s surface is covered in ice. But, it’s what lies beneath the surface that has scientists wanting to go there.
Scientists believe Europa has a liquid ocean underneath its surface. According to measurements taken from the Galileo probe back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Europa’s ocean may have 2-3 times more liquid water than the oceans on Earth.
And where there is water, there is the potential for life.
NASA-JPL astrobiologist Kevin Hand explains why scientists are so excited about Europa. In the video below, Hand explains how Europa maintains its liquid ocean despite being so far from the sun. As Europa orbits Jupiter, the gravity from the gas giant creates extreme tidal forces. These tidal forces cause Europa to ‘flex.’ This tidal energy turns into mechanical energy that leads to friction and heat, keeping Europa’s ocean from freezing.
The tidal energy could also lead to interactions between the ocean and Europa’s sea floor. Such ‘interactions’ could come in the form of hydrothermal vents. If, and it’s a big if, this all is taking place – Europa would have all of the things necessary for life to exist.
Check out the entire video below. Kevin Hand does a great job of explaining the excitement around Europa.
Last year, NASA issued a ‘Request for Information’ to science and engineering communities for ideas for a possible Europa mission.
As part of this Request for Information, NASA highlighted five key objectives a Europa mission should have.
Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior
Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange
Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability
Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration
Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.
Missed the State of NASA speech where NASA Chief Charles Bolden talked about Europa and more? Check it out below.