Fly Slowly Through Enceladus' Plumes to Detect Life

The plumes of Enceladus have phosphate-rich ice grains entrained. Credit: NASA
A NASA illustrations of Cassini flying through the plumes of Enceladus. Credit: NASA.

Enceladus is blasting water into space from the jets at its southern pole. This makes it the ideal place to send a dedicated mission, flying the spacecraft through the plumes with life-detection instruments s. A new study suggests that a spacecraft must proceed carefully through the plumes, keeping its speed below 4.2 km/second (2,236 miles per hour). Using a specialized, custom-built aerosol impact spectrometer at these speeds will allow fragile amino acids to be captured by the spacecraft’s sample collector. Any faster, they’ll shatter, providing inclusive results.

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Europa Clipper Could Help Discover if Jupiter's Moon is Habitable

Artist's concept of a Europa Clipper mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Since 1979, when the Voyager probes flew past Jupiter and its system of moons, scientists have speculated about the possibility of life within Europa. Based on planetary modeling, Europa is believed to be differentiated between a rocky and metallic core, an icy crust and mantle, and a liquid-water ocean that could be 100 to 200 km (62 to 124 mi) deep. Scientists theorize that this ocean is maintained by tidal flexing, where interaction with Jupiter’s powerful gravitational field leads to geological activity in Europa’s core and hydrothermal vents at the core-mantle boundary.

Investigating the potential habitability of Europa is the main purpose of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which will launch on October 10th, 2024, and arrive around Jupiter in April 2030. However, this presents a challenge for astrobiologists since the habitability of Europa is dependent on many interrelated parameters that require collaborative investigation. In a recent paper, a team of NASA-led researchers reviewed the objectives of the Europa Clipper mission and anticipated what it could reveal regarding the moon’s interior, composition, and geology.

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Should We Send Humans to Europa?

Image of Jupiter's moon, Europa, taken by NASA's Juno spacecraft. Could we send humans to Europa, someday? (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill © CC BY)

Universe Today recently examined the potential for sending humans to the planet Venus despite its extremely harsh surface conditions. But while a human mission to the clouds of Venus could be feasible given the environmental conditions are much more Earth-like, a human mission to the second planet from the Sun could be (at minimum) decades away. With NASA sending humans back to the Moon in the next few years, and hopefully to Mars, what if we could send humans to another planetary body worth exploring, though it could have its own harsh environmental conditions, as well? What about Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa? It has a massive interior liquid ocean that could harbor life, and NASA is currently scheduled to launch its Europa Clipper spacecraft to this small moon in October 2024, arriving at Jupiter in April 2030. Therefore, given the exploration potential, should we send humans to Europa?

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NASA Tests a Prototype Europa Lander

Testing Hardware for Potential Future Landing on Europa. Credit: NASA JPL-Caltech

In 2024, NASA will launch the Europa Clipper, the long-awaited orbiter mission that will fly to Jupiter (arriving in 2030) to explore its icy moon Europa. Through a series of flybys, the Clipper will survey Europa’s surface and plume activity in the hopes of spotting organic molecules and other potential indications of life (“biosignatures”). If all goes well, NASA plans to send a follow-up mission to land on the surface and examine Europa’s icy sheet and plumes more closely. This proposed mission is aptly named the Europa Lander.

While no date has been set, and the mission is still in the research phase, some significant steps have been taken to get the Europa Lander to the development phase. This past August, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California tested a prototype of this proposed landing system in a simulated environment. This system combines hardware used by previous NASA lander missions and some new elements that will enable a mission to Europa. It also could be adapted to facilitate missions to more “Ocean Worlds” and other celestial bodies in our Solar System.

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Europa and Enceladus are the Perfect Targets for a Lightsail Mission

Saturn's moon Enceladus isn't just bright and beautiful. It has an ocean under all that ice that has chemicals necessary for life. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, JPL, SSI, Cassini Imaging Team

There’s always a need for new technologies or for novel uses of existing technologies to lower the cost of space exploration and extend our reach. Lightsails are a novel type of spacecraft that could eventually be our first visitors to nearby stars like the Alpha Centauri system. But they could be put to productive use right here in our Solar System.

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The JWST Just Found Carbon on Europa, Boosting the Moon’s Potential Habitability

This reprocessed colour view of Jupiter’s moon Europa was made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Most planets and moons in the Solar System are clearly dead and totally unsuitable for life. Earth is the only exception. But there are a few worlds where there are intriguing possibilities of life.

Chief among them is Jupiter’s moon Europa, and the JWST just discovered carbon there. That makes the moon and its subsurface ocean an even more desirable target in the search for life.

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Mini-Subs Could One Day Ply the Seas Under Europa’s Ice

This is a model of the miniature underwater vehicle being developed at MARUM with partners from industry. It will have a diameter of around ten cm and a length of about 50 cm. The tiny submarines will be placed inside a melt probe then released in the subglacial lakes under Antarctica. Image Credit: MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen.

The most promising places to look for life in the Solar System are in the ocean moons Europa and Enceladus. But all that warm, salty, potentially life-supporting water is under thick sheets of ice: up to 30 km thick on Europa and up to 40 km thick for Enceladus.

The main obstacles to exploring all that water are the thick ice barriers. Assuming a spacecraft can be designed and built to melt its way through all that ice, what then?

Submarines can do the actual exploring, and they needn’t be large.

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A Swarm Of Swimming Microbots Could Be Deployed To Europa’s Ocean

Europa and other ocean worlds in our solar system have recently attracted much attention. They are thought to be some of the most likely places in our solar system for life to have developed off Earth, given the presence of liquid water under their ice sheathes and our understanding of liquid water as one of the necessities for the development of life. Various missions are planned to these ocean worlds, but many suffer from numerous design constraints. Requirements to break through kilometers of ice on a world far from the Sun will do that to any mission. These design constraints sometimes make it difficult for the missions to achieve one of their most important functions – the search for life. But a team of engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory think they have a solution – send forth a swarm of swimming microbots to scour the ocean beneath a main “mothership” bot.

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Juice is Fully Deployed. It’s Now in its Final Form, Ready to Meet Jupiter’s Moons in 2031

Still image from a video animation of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) spacecraft. (Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab)

Launched on April 14, 2023, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice; formerly known as JUICE) spacecraft has finally completed the unfurling of its solar panel arrays and plethora of booms, probes, and antennae while en route to the solar system’s largest planet.

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We Could Soon See Landslides on Europa and Ganymede

Image of potential flat, smooth terrain on Ganymede imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 2000 that could be indicative of landslides. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Brown University)

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) recently launched Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission and NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission could allow scientists to image landslides on the icy moons of Europa and Ganymede due to potential moonquakes on these small worlds. This comes after a recent study examined fault scarps on Europa and Ganymede orbiting Jupiter and Enceladus and Dione orbiting Saturn with the goal of drawing a connection between tectonic activity (quakes) and observed mass wasting (landslides) on these surfaces. The researchers “consider whether such smooth material can be generated by mass wasting triggered from local seismic shaking”, according to the study.

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