Within our Solar Systems, there are several moons where astronomers believe life could be found. This includes Ceres, Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, and maybe Dione, Mimas, Triton, and the dwarf planet Pluto. These “ocean worlds” are believed to have abundant liquid water in their interiors, as well as organic molecules and tidal heating – the basic ingredients for life.
Which raises the all-important question: are similar moons to be found in other star systems? This is the question NASA planetary scientist Dr. Lynnae C. Quick and her team from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center sought to address. In a recent study, Quick and her colleagues examined a sample of exoplanet systems and found that ocean worlds are likely to be very common in our galaxy.
Earlier this week, we shared some stunning, newly reprocessed images of Europa from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which visited Jupiter and its moons from December 1995 to September 2003. Now, as scientists continue to revisit Galileo’s data, even more details are coming into focus about Jupiter’s enticing moon. Not only is there evidence within the past few years of geysers shooting from Europa’s surface, twenty years ago, Galileo may have also witnessed a cryovolcanic eruptions — or plumes of water — spewing from the icy moon.
The space agencies of the world have some truly ambitious plans in mind for the coming decade. Alongside missions that will search for evidence for past (and maybe present) life on Mars, next-generation space telescopes, and the “return to the Moon”, there are missions will which will explore Jupiter’s moons for signs of extra-terrestrial life. These include the ESA’s JUpiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), which will launch in 2022.
As part of the agency’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program, this spacecraft will conduct detailed observations of Jupiter and three of its large moons – Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa – to see if they could indeed harbor life in their interiors. Late last month (Feb. 25th), the first instrument that will fly aboard JUICE and aid in these efforts was delivered and began the process of integration with the spacecraft.
Not all rovers are designed to roam around on the surface of other worlds like Mars. One rover, at least, is aquatic; a necessary development if we’re going to explore Enceladus, Europa, and the Solar System’s other watery worlds. This rover is called the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, or BRUIE.
What’s been long-suspected has now been confirmed: Jupiter’s moon Europa has water. As we’ve learned more about the outer Solar System in recent years, Europa has become a high-priority target in the search for life. With this discovery, NASA has just painted a big red bulls-eye on Jupiter’s smallest Galilean moon.
Is there a more complicated and sophisticated technological engineering project than a spacecraft? Maybe a particle accelerator or a fusion power project. But other than those two, the answer is probably no.
Spacecraft like the ESA’s JUICE don’t just pop out of the lab ready to go. Each spacecraft like JUICE is a singular design, and they require years—or even a decade or more—of work before they ever see a launch pad. With a scheduled launch date of 2022, JUICE is in the middle of all that work. Now its cameras are capturing images of Jupiter and its icy moons as part of its navigation calibration and fine-tuning.
In 2023, NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper mission, a robotic explorer that will study Jupiter’s enigmatic moon Europa. The purpose of this mission is to explore Europa’s ice shell and interior to learn more about the moon’s composition, geology, and interactions between the surface and subsurface. Most of all, the purpose of this mission is to shed light on whether or not life could exist within Europa’s interior ocean.
This presents numerous challenges, many of which arise from the fact that the Europa Clipper will be very far from Earth when it conducts its science operations. To address this, a team of researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Arizona State University (ASU) designed a series of machine-learning algorithms that will allow the mission to explore Europa with a degree of autonom.
Jupiter’s moon Europa continues to be a source of wonder and scientific intrigue. As one of the four Galilean Moons (so-named because of their founder, Galileo Galilee), Europa is one of Jupiter’s largest satellites and is considered one of the best bets for finding extraterrestrial life in the Solar System. And recently, it joined its cousins (Io and Callisto) in passing in front of a star.
This type of rare event (a stellar occultation) allows astronomers to conduct unique observations of a celestial body. In Europa’s case, the occultation took place in 2017 and allowed astronomers to make more precise measurements of Europa’s size, its position relative to Jupiter, and its true shape. All this was made possible by the ESA’s Gaia Observatory, which let astronomers know exactly when and where to look for the moon.