The NASA-employed Science Definition Team has been crafting a plan to launch a mission that would search for alien life on Jupiter's icy moon Europa.
The extraterrestrial world of Europa is considered as among the most likely places in the solar system to have the ability to support life as we know it. Scientists have gathered evidence that the salty ocean that lurks beneath the icy crust of the moon could be hospitable to life. Recent models also hint that the icy world can produce oxygen and hydrogen, which suggests it may have the necessary energy to support life.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, the 21-member SDT submitted a report detailing the concept of sending a lander to Europa to determine if the moon harbors life. The report proposed a mission that could launch by 2030 to search for life on Europa by drilling toward the moon's subterranean ocean.
While there has been strong evidence of the existence of the ocean - based on data gathered by NASA's Galileo mission that explored Jupiter and its moons in the 1990s - no sample has yet been collected from the ocean itself, which is believed to be buried beneath 11 to 15 miles of ice layers. The liquid water could be 62 miles deep. Scientists estimate that the large global ocean has about twice as much water found in the Earth's oceans, albeit this is protected by hard ice.
Probe To Drill Into Europa's Icy Crust
SDT members worked with NASA engineers to design a probe that can drill about 4 inches into the icy crust of Europa to collect samples for analysis on the spacecraft for signs of extraterrestrial life. If the mission is successful, a future Europa mission could drill even further and possibly even reach the subterranean ocean. Scientists noted that the best chance of finding life on the moon would be to drill beneath the crust, but this would not happen with the first mission, which would drill only a few inches down into the crust.
"This mission would significantly advance our understanding of Europa as an ocean world, even in the absence of any definitive signs of life, and would provide the foundation for the future robotic exploration of Europa," the report reads.
Team members also proposed that besides having a drill or cutter for extracting samples, the lander should include a camera system that could see what is going on outside, instruments that can analyze the chemistry of the icy crust of Europa, as well as a device that would monitor geologic activity.
Researchers are particularly keen on finding biosignatures such as isotopes or molecules that can hint at past or present life on the moon. NASA said that the report proposed three science goals for the mission.
"The primary goal is to search for evidence of life on Europa," the U.S. space agency said in a statement. "The other goals are to assess the habitability of Europa by directly analyzing material from the surface, and to characterize the surface and subsurface to support future robotic exploration of Europa and its ocean."