NASA needs your help: What should we send to Europa?

18 May 2017

Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA is calling on scientists to suggest what should be investigated on Europa, and what tools should be sent there in an expected lander mission.

Nobody can ever accuse NASA of being an organisation with shut doors and closed minds, with its constant collaborations part of what makes it so successful.

Whether it’s collaborating with the ESA on the wonderfully successful Cassini mission, working with Russian and European astronauts aboard the International Space Station, or just bouncing ideas off the wider scientific community, NASA is an active team player.

And, on that note, things are getting interesting.

Water, water everywhere

Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons, last year becoming one of the more fascinating bodies in our solar system.

Known to be icy, giant plumes of water were suggested to exist on this moon.

Based on images taken by NASA using the legendary Hubble Space Telescope, these potential plumes are said to be enormous, rising to heights of around 200km, before raining back down on Europa’s surface.

If these are indeed vast water plumes, astrobiologists will be rubbing their hands with glee as it possibly means we could analyse them for signs of microbial life, rather than needing to drill down into the ice.

This all plays into NASA’s latest dilemma.

The difficult second album

The Europa Clipper mission takes off in the early 2020s, with a brief to gather better imagery and readings of the moon. However, its follow-on mission will, most likely, land on Europa’s surface, so NASA needs to know what equipment to bring.

For that, it is opening its doors and asking the broader scientific community to offer suggestions for a mission that is expected to get the official go-ahead next year.

“The possibility of placing a lander on the surface of this intriguing icy moon, touching and exploring a world that harbours life is at the heart of the Europa lander mission,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen.

“We want the community to be prepared for this announcement of opportunity because NASA recognises the immense amount of work involved in preparing proposals for this potential future exploration.”

Three areas of concern

Proposed investigations will be evaluated and selected through a two-step competitive process to fund development of a variety of relevant devices, and then to ensure they are compatible with the mission concept.

The areas NASA are interested are pretty obvious:

  • Search for evidence of life on Europa.
  • Assess the habitability of Europa via in situ techniques uniquely available to a lander mission.
  • Characterise surface and subsurface properties at the scale of the lander.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic