NASA is investing in a new research program – the Exploring Ocean Worlds (ExOW) project. The five-year effort is geared to understand the potential for life in the outer solar system and establishes a new Network for Ocean Worlds.

Credit: NASA

The focus of the effort would address a central question in astrobiology research today: On which ocean worlds, and using which measurements, do we have the highest probability of finding life beyond Earth within the next human generation?

Jupiter’s Europa could be site for water…and life?
Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

Accelerating research

The project will form a cornerstone for NASA’s new Network for Ocean Worlds (NOW). NOW is an initiative aimed at accelerating research on planetary bodies with liquid water oceans that may harbor life or conditions that could support it by coordinating scientific studies nationwide that help advance understanding of ocean worlds.

The network will be co-led by Christopher German, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, together with Alison Murray at the Desert Research Institute and Alyssa Rhoden at the Southwest Research Institute.

NOW is the latest of four research coordination networks to be established by NASA that will enable research covering different aspects of the search for life beyond Earth.

Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter.
Credit: NASA



Best bet

“If we hope to find evidence of life beyond Earth, within the next human generation, then our best bet is to look toward the growing list of ice-covered ocean worlds right here in our own solar system,” said German in a press statement.

“And looking further ahead,” German added, “if we want to understand the range of possible conditions that could support life anywhere beyond Earth, then we will simultaneously need to both continue exploring our own ocean for examples of extremes under which life can exist and continue developing exploration technologies that will be useful on any ocean world, including Earth.”

Chemical evidence consistent with serpentinization and water-rock interactions on
Enceladus and known hydrothermal activity make Enceladus a key target for astrobiology exploration.
Sampling the moon’s plumes would help to establish if life exists there now.
Credit: NASA/JPLCaltech/
Southwest Research Institute

Liquid water oceans

Ocean worlds beyond Earth have been a key research focus for NASA’s Planetary Science Division ever since the confirmation of ice-covered liquid water oceans on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede and, subsequently, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan.

Titan as imaged by Cassini spacecraft.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Ultimately, the ExOW team intends to construct a comprehensive theoretical model, informed and tested by experimental efforts, that connects a broad range of physical and chemical processes within an ocean system. The model will help determine the potential of that system to harbor life and to reveal evidence of that life to future NASA missions.

This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s Europa mission spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Carroll

“Our approach is designed to provide a predictive framework applicable to all ocean worlds of this type, but will have clear, immediate and direct relevance to two high priority astrobiology targets: Europa and Enceladus,” said German. The project is designed to be completed just in time for the launch of Europa Clipper, NASA’s next major mission to an ocean world, which is currently scheduled for launch in the early 2020s.

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