This is What a Robotic Explorer Might See When it Reaches Europa’s Oceans

Mounds of snow-like ice under an ice shelf. ©Helen Glazer, 2015 from the project Walking in Antarctica.

For decades, evidence has been mounting that beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa, a vast ocean exists that could possibly host microbial life. As scientists prepare to send the Europa Clipper mission to orbit the Jupiter system, they are trying to learn more about the subsurface ocean and the ice that encompasses the moon.

One way to study Europa is to look at similar environments here on Earth. Scientists say that conditions found under Earth’s Antarctic ice shelf provides an analog to Europa’s subsurface ocean and can help them determine how the moon’s ice shell accretes and grows.

A new study published in the journal Astrobiology looked at a unique phenomenon in the Antarctic ocean called underwater snow. This is where ice floats upwards onto the bottom of the ice shelf and attaches in fluffy-looking mounds. This helps to replenish the ice shelf. The study infers that the same phenomenon is likely true for Jupiter’s moon, and may play a role in building and replenishing its exterior ice shell.

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Will Europa finally answer, ‘Are we alone?’

While NASA’s much-lauded Space Launch System stands ready for its maiden flight later this month with the goal of sending astronauts back to the Moon in the next few years, our gazes once again turn to the stars as we continue to ask the question that has plagued humankind since time immemorial: Are we alone? While there are several solar system locales that we can choose from to conduct our search for life beyond Earth, to include Mars and Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, one planetary body orbiting the largest planet in the solar system has peaked the interest of scientists since the 1970s.

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A Swarm of Swimming Robots to Search for Life Under the Ice on Europa

An artist’s interpretation of liquid water on the surface of the Europa pooling beneath chaos terrain. Credit: : NASA/JPL-Caltech

When Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter 400 years ago, he saw three blobs of light around the giant planet, which he at first thought were fixed stars. He kept looking, and eventually, he spotted a fourth blob and noticed the blobs were moving. Galileo’s discovery of objects orbiting something other than Earth—which we call the Galilean moons in his honour—struck a blow to the Ptolemaic (geocentric) worldview of the time.

Galileo couldn’t have foreseen the age of space exploration that we’re living in now. Fast forward 400 years, and here we are. We know the Earth doesn’t occupy any central point. We’ve discovered thousands of other planets, and many of them will have their own moons. Galileo would be amazed at this.

What would he think about robotic missions to explore one of the blobs of light he spotted?

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ESA's Juice Mission is Fully Integrated and Ready for Testing. Soon it'll fly to Space on a Mission to Jupiter's Moons

Artist's impression of the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) near Jupiter and one of its moons, Europa. Credit: ESA/AOES

Now less than one year until the projected launch date, ESA’s JUICE mission is in the final phases of development. The JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) is now fully built with all ten instruments integrated into the spacecraft bus. Next comes all-up testing in a full flight configuration.

Launch is currently scheduled for April of 2023, with the mission slated to conduct detailed investigations of Jupiter and its system of moons, focusing on Europa, Callisto and especially Ganymede.

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What’s the Right Depth to Search for Life on Icy Worlds?

Are we alone? Is there life beyond Earth? These are the questions that plague the very essence of science, and in particular, planetary science. Unfortunately, robotic exploration of exoplanetary systems currently remains out of reach due to the literal astronomical distances to get there. For context, our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light years away, or a mind-blowing 40,208,000,000,000 km (25,000,000,000,000 miles) from Earth. Finding an intelligent civilization might be out of reach for now but searching for any forms of life beyond Earth is very much possible within the confines of our own solar system.

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Hydrogen Gas Can Seep Through Rock Providing Food to Bacteria. Another Place to Look for Life On Other Worlds.

An artist’s interpretation of liquid water on the surface of the Europa pooling beneath chaos terrain. Credit: : NASA/JPL-Caltech

Spin Google Earth around until you’re looking down at the nation of Oman. Ancient rock in that country is the backdrop for a new study with consequences for our search for life. Water reacts with this rock to produce hydrogen, which could be an energy source for bacteria. Could this happen on other worlds?

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Shallow Pockets of Water Under the ice on Europa Could Bring Life Close to its Surface

This artist’s conception shows how double ridges on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa may form over shallow, refreezing water pockets within the ice shell. This mechanism is based on the study of an analogous double ridge feature found on Earth’s Greenland Ice Sheet. (Image credit: Justice Blaine Wainwright)

Beneath the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, there’s an ocean up to 100 km (62 mi) deep that has two to three times the volume of every ocean on Earth combined. Even more exciting is how this ocean is subject to hydrothermal activity, which means it may have all the necessary ingredients for life. Because of this, Europa is considered one of the most likely places for extraterrestrial life (beyond Mars). Hence, mission planners and astrobiologists are eager to send a mission there to study it closer.

Unfortunately, Europa’s icy surface makes the possibility of sampling this ocean rather difficult. According to the two predominant models for Europa’s structure, the ice sheet could be a few hundred meters to several dozen kilometers thick. Luckily, new research by a team from Stanford University has shown that Europa’s icy shell may have an abundance of water pockets inside, as indicated by features on the surface that look remarkably like icy ridges here on Earth.

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Europa Could be Pulling Oxygen Down Below the Ice to Feed Life

An artist’s interpretation of liquid water on the surface of the Europa pooling beneath chaos terrain. Credit: : NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jupiter’s moon Europa is a prime candidate in the search for life. The frozen moon has a subsurface ocean, and evidence indicates it’s warm, salty, and rich in life-enabling chemistry.

New research shows that the moon is pulling oxygen down below its icy shell, where it could be feeding simple life.

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The Europa Clipper is Coming Together, Launching in 2024

Clockwise from left: the propulsion module for NASA’s Europa Clipper, the ultraviolet spectrograph (called Europa-UVS), the high-gain antenna, and an illustration of the spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech / Johns Hopkins APL

Who is excited to send a spacecraft to Europa? Every person I’ve talked to who is even remotely interested in planetary exploration is incredibly enthusiastic about the upcoming Europa Clipper mission to explore Jupiter’s icy moon. With strong evidence of a subsurface liquid ocean, Europa is considered by many to be the most likely place in our Solar System – besides Earth — which might harbor life. The many mysteries about this moon make it a compelling place to explore.

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Europa Clipper’s Thermal Imaging System was Tested Here on Earth

E-THEMIS temperature color image from the “first light” test, taken from the rooftop of ISTB4 on the ASU Tempe campus. The top image was acquired at 12:40 p.m., the middle at 4:40 p.m. and the bottom image at 6:20 p.m. (after sunset). Temperatures are approximations during this testing phase. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The highly anticipated Europa Clipper mission, set to launch in 2024, will investigate Jupiter’s moon Europa. This icy moon with a subsurface ocean is considered one of the most enticing places in our Solar System where life might exist. To look beneath Europa’s icy crust, the Clipper mission has a host of instruments looking for plumes and ‘hot spots.’

A thermal emissions imager, called E-THEMIS (Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System) recently passed a major testing hurdle recently by capturing its “first light” images with its infrared camera.

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