Credit: JPL

Credit: JPL

Europa harbors a global ocean covered by an ice shell. Indeed, that large reservoir of liquid water has long enchanted planetary scientists with the possibility that the moon is also a harbor for life.

On one hand, NASA does place high programmatic priority on this prospect to further the potential for a future lander mission to Europa.

 

Concept of a Europa lander. Credit: University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics.

Concept of a Europa lander.
Credit: University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics.

In fact, NASA’s Europa Clipper mission concept would conduct remote reconnaissance of the moon and help identify possible landing sites for a subsequent Europa lander mission.

On the other hand, current data does not provide sufficient information to identify landing sites and design a landing system capable of safely reaching the surface.

Wanted: compelling sites

So the call from NASA is out on how best to characterize scientifically compelling sites, and hazards for a potential future landed mission to Europa.

Next month, NASA will be hosting a meeting to help galvanize scientists to investigate a Europa mission.

One group that’s up and running to get to Europa is the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics.

Last year, the Texas team designed a NASA mission concept to search for life on Europa. They developed a part of the mission scenario that would use sound waves to study the moon’s icy shell, deep ocean and possible shallow lakes.

As envisioned in the University of Texas at Austin’s study, a Europa lander would have a series of seismometers embedded in its six legs. That would allow mission scientists to measure the thickness of the moon’s all-encompassing ice shell, study the flexing and cracking of the ice in response to tidal forces, model the exchange of chemicals between the moon’s surface and the deep ocean and potentially confirm the existence of lakes embedded in the ice shell.

This information would help scientists determine where the best habitats for life might exist within the moon.

Using imagery from the NASA Galileo mission to Jupiter, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found evidence for large lakes of water embedded near the surface of Europa’s ice shell – spots that might provide a comfy habitat for 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 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Collage of Galileo images of Jupiter's icy Europa. Credit: JPL/Univ. of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics

Collage of Galileo images of Jupiter’s icy Europa.
Credit: JPL/Univ. of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics

“There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa,” Pappalardo said, “but studies like these will help us to focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations.”The university’s work was conducted with Europa study funds from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Griffith Observatory Event