NASA recently released a new gorgeous remastered photo of Europa taken from its 1990s Galileo spacecraft mission. Does this portend a future mission there?
Signs definitely point to "maybe."
Europa fascinates both astronomers and space nerds. The Jupiter moon, covered with icy oceans of water, could be the place where we find signs of extraterrestrial life. We've even found signs of organic minerals on its icy crust, while the Hubble Space Telescope captured images of water plumes emitting from its surface.
"The Galileo mission found strong evidence that a subsurface ocean of salty water is in contact with a rocky seafloor," writes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on their website. "The cycling of material between the ocean and ice shell could potentially provide sources of chemical energy that could sustain simple life forms."
This new photo features colors more closely representing what Europa would look like with the human eye. The image also shows off Europa's many fractures and cracks in its icy shell. There's a possibility that those cracks hold the secrets of Europa's geology, as well as the chemistry of the oceans that lie underneath it.
A new video, released with the photo, suggests that it's time we explored Europa in greater detail. Could this be a hint of things to come?
Many think the answer to that is "yes." It was recently announced that Rep. John Culberson is the new leader of the House of Representatives Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations subcommittee. Part of this committee's duties includes funding bills for NASA and NSF.
But why is Culberson so important? The Representative is passionate about planetary science and has been vocal about his support for an exploratory mission to Europa.
"I'm certain that there's life elsewhere in the universe," says Culberson. "And I'm also certain that the first place we will discover life on another world is Europa. It will be discovered in the oceans of Europa. And it will be a robotic mission designed and flown by NASA that discovers it."
Culberson also says that his plans include getting "maximum funding" for a Europa mission so that it's "the biggest and best we've ever flown."
With Culberson's appointment and the timing of this video, could planning for a mission happen soon?
It certainly seems possible now, especially with both NASA and Culberson invested in the idea. It's possible that NASA will request a Europa mission in its 2016 budget. It's also possible with Culberson leading the committee with access to funding, such a mission would be approved.
Of course, in politics, anything can (or cannot) happen, particularly with likely stand-offs in the future between a Republican congress and a Democratic President. We'll just have to wait and see if Europa ends up on the bargaining table.
[Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute]