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.

Continue reading “Will Europa finally answer, ‘Are we alone?’”

Snooping on Alien Messages Passing Through the Solar System

Researchers at Penn State University have studied a new technique that could use a star’s ability to focus and magnify communications which could be passing through our own solar system, and has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal and was part of a graduate course at Penn State covering the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI. The study describes our Sun as potentially acting as a kind of node as part of an interstellar communication network involving probes or relays near our Sun, acting like cellular telephone towers in space.

Continue reading “Snooping on Alien Messages Passing Through the Solar System”

Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” X: What is the Firstborn Hypothesis?

Artist's impression of an exoplanet orbiting a low-mass star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that the reason for the Great Silence is that we are “early to the party”!

In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?

This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which includes the Firstborn Hypothesis that states that humanity could be the first intelligent life to emerge in our galaxy.

Continue reading “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” X: What is the Firstborn Hypothesis?”

NASA Releases a New Poster for the Europa Clipper Mission

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In this decade and the next, some very impressive missions will take place. For instance, NASA will send its robotic Europa Clipper orbiter investigate Jupiter’s icy moon Europa for the first time. The orbiter will launch sometime in the middle of the decade (likely 2024) and arrive in the Jovian sytem in the 2030s to look for possible signs of life.

In preparation for this momentous event, NASA recently released a stunning new mission poster. As you can see, the poster features the orbiter looking down on Europa’s icy surface with Jupiter hanging in the background. The orbiter itself is in shadow so as to draw attention to the landscape beneath it.

Continue reading “NASA Releases a New Poster for the Europa Clipper Mission”

Could There Be a Form of Life Inside Stars?

This dramatic infrared image shows the nearby star formation region Monoceros R2, located some 2700 light-years away in the constellation of Monoceros (the Unicorn). The picture was created from exposures in the near infrared bands Y, J and Ks taken by the VISTA survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory. Monoceros R2 is an association of massive hot young stars illuminating a beautiful collection of reflection nebulae, embedded in a large molecular cloud. This image is available as a mounted image in the ESOshop.

Are we alone in the universe?

It is one of the most profound questions posed in modern astronomy. But although our understanding of the cosmos has grown significantly, the question remains unanswered. We know that Earth-like planets are common, as are the building blocks necessary for terrestrial life, and yet we still haven’t found definitive evidence for life beyond Earth. Perhaps part of our problem is that we are mostly looking for life similar to our own. It is possible that alien life is so radically different from that of Earth it goes unnoticed.

Continue reading “Could There Be a Form of Life Inside Stars?”

Is the Concept of a Habitable Zone Too Wide?

Planetary system comparison
This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside our own solar system, plus another planetary system with a habitable-zone planet known as Kepler-186f. The Kepler-186 system has a faint red dwarf star and a planet whose orbit would fit inside the orbit of Mercury.

In our search for exoplanets, we have found more than three dozen potentially habitable worlds. It’s estimated that there are 8 to 20 billion potentially habitable, Earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone. But there is a big difference between potentially habitable and actually habitable, and scientists are starting to narrow their definitions.

Continue reading “Is the Concept of a Habitable Zone Too Wide?”

AI Could Help the Europa Clipper Mission Make New Discoveries!

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

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.

Continue reading “AI Could Help the Europa Clipper Mission Make New Discoveries!”

NASA Selects Mission Science Instruments Searching for Habitability of Jupiter’s Ocean Moon Europa

The fascinating surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. This is the color view of Europa from Galileo that shows the largest portion of the moon's surface at the highest resolution. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

In a major move forward on a long dreamed of mission to investigate the habitability of the subsurface ocean of Jupiter’s mysterious moon Europa, top NASA officials announced today, Tuesday, May 26, the selection of nine science instruments that will fly on the agency’s long awaited planetary science mission to an intriguing world that many scientists suspect could support life.

“We are on our way to Europa,” proclaimed John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, at a media briefing today outlining NASA’s plans for a mission dedicated to launching in the early to mid-2020s. “It’s a mission to inspire.”

“We are trying to answer big questions. Are we alone?”

“The young surface seems to be in contact with an undersea ocean.”

The Europa mission goal is to investigate whether the tantalizing icy Jovian moon, similar in size to Earth’s moon, could harbor conditions suitable for the evolution and sustainability of life in the suspected ocean.

It will be equipped with high resolution cameras, radar and spectrometers, several generations beyond anything before to map the surface in unprecedented detail and determine the moon’s composition and subsurface character. And it will search for subsurface lakes and seek to sample erupting vapor plumes like those occurring today on Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus.

“Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon,” says Grunsfeld.

“We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.”

Planetary scientists have long desired a speedy return on Europa, ever since the groundbreaking discoveries of NASA’s Galileo Jupiter orbiter in the 1990s showed that the alien world possessed a substantial and deep subsurface ocean beneath an icy shell that appears to interact with and alter the surface in recent times.

This 12-frame mosaic provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter's moon Europa that faces the giant planet. It was obtained on Nov. 25, 1999 by the camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft, a past NASA mission to Jupiter and its moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
This 12-frame mosaic provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter’s moon Europa that faces the giant planet. It was obtained on Nov. 25, 1999 by the camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft, a past NASA mission to Jupiter and its moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA’s Europa mission would blastoff perhaps as soon as 2022, depending on the budget allocation and rocket selection, whose candidates include the heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS).

The solar powered probe will go into orbit around Jupiter for a three year mission.

“The mission concept is that it will conduct multiple flyby’s of Europa,” said Jim Green. director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, during the briefing.

“The purpose is to determine if Europa is a habitable place. It shows few craters, a brown gum on the surface and cracks where the subsurface meet the surface. There may be organics and nutrients among the discoloration at the surface.”

Europa is at or near the top of the list for most likely places in our solar system that could support life. Mars is also near the top of the list and currently being explored by a fleet of NASA robotic probes including surface rovers Curiosity and Opportunity.

“Europa is one of those critical areas where we believe that the environment is just perfect for potential development of life,” said Green. “This mission will be that step that helps us understand that environment and hopefully give us an indication of how habitable the environment could be.”

The exact thickness of Europa’s ice shell and extent of its subsurface ocean is not known.

The ice shell thickness has been inferred by some scientists to be perhaps only 5 to 10 kilometers thick based on data from Galileo, the Hubble Space Telescope, a Cassini flyby and other ground and space based observations.

The global ocean might be twice the volume of all of Earth’s water. Research indicates that it is salty, may possess organics, and has a rocky sea floor. Tidal heating from Jupiter could provide the energy for mixing and chemical reactions, supplemented by undersea volcanoes spewing heat and minerals to support living creatures, if they exist.

This artist's rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present day life beyond our home planet,” says NASA officials.

The instruments chosen today by NASA will help answer the question of habitability, but they are not life detection instruments in and of themselves. That would require a follow on mission.

“They could find indications of life, but they’re not life detectors,” said Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We currently don’t even have consensus in the scientific community as to what we would measure that would tell everybody with confidence this thing you’re looking at is alive. Building a life detector is incredibly difficult.”

‘During the three year mission, the orbiter will conduct 45 close flyby’s of Europa,” Niebur told Universe Today. “These will occur about every two to three weeks.”

The close flyby’s will vary in altitude from 16 miles to 1,700 miles (25 kilometers to 2,700 kilometers).

“The mass spectrometer has a range of 1 to 2000 daltons, Niebur told me. “That’s a much wider range than Cassini. However there will be no means aboard to determine chirality.” The presence of Chiral compounds could be an indicator of life.

Right now the Europa mission is in the formulation stage with a budget of about $10 million this year and $30 Million in 2016. Over the next three years the mission concept will be defined.

The mission is expected to cost in the range of at least $2 Billion or more.

Jupiter Moon Europa, Ice Rafting View
Jupiter Moon Europa, Ice Rafting View

Here’s a NASA description of the 9 instruments selected:

Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) — principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.

Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG)
— principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and – in conjunction with the PIMS instrument – infer the location, thickness and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.


Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE)
— principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of JPL. This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.

Europa Imaging System (EIS) — principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of APL. The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.

Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) — principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. This dual-frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.

Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) — principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe. This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.

MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) — principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio. This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.

Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) — principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of SwRI. This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.

SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) — principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado, Boulder. This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Europa Life: Could ‘Extreme Shrimp’ Point To Microbes On That Moon?

This is a type of shrimp that lives in hydrothermal vents (areas of hot water) in the Caribbean. NASA is studying Rimicaris hybisae and other "extreme shrimp" to learn more about lifeforms that could survive on other worlds. Credit: Chris German, WHOI/NSF, NASA/ROV Jason C: 2012 Woods

For all of the talk about aliens that we see in science fiction, the reality is in our Solar System, any extraterrestrial life is likely to be microbial. The lucky thing for us is there are an abundance of places that we can search for them — not least Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter believed to harbor a global ocean and that NASA wants to visit fairly soon. What lurks in those waters?

To gain a better understanding of the extremes of life, scientists regularly look at bacteria and other lifeforms here on Earth that can make their living in hazardous spots. One recent line of research involves shrimp that live in almost the same area as bacteria that survive in vents of up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius) — way beyond the boiling point, but still hospitable to life.

Far from sunlight, the bacteria receive their energy from chemical combinations (specifically, hydrogen sulfide). While the shrimp certainly don’t live in these hostile areas, they perch just at the edge — about an inch away. The shrimp feed on the bacteria, which in turn feed on the hydrogen sulfide (which is toxic to larger organisms if there is enough of it.) Oh, and by the way, some of the shrimps are likely cannibals!

One species called Rimicaris hybisae, according to the evidence, likely feeds on each other. This happens in areas where the bacteria are not as abundant and the organisms need to find some food to survive. To be sure, nobody saw the shrimps munching on each other, but scientists did find small crustaceans inside them — and there are few other types of crustaceans in the area.

But how likely, really, are these organisms on Europa? Bacteria might be plausible, but something larger and more complicated? The researchers say this all depends on how much energy the ecosystems have to offer. And in order to see up close, we’d have to get underwater somehow and do some exploring.

In a recent Universe Today interview with Mike Brown, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology, the renowned dwarf-planet hunter talked about how a submarine could do some neat work.

“In the proposed missions that I’ve heard, and in the only one that seems semi-viable, you land on the surface with basically a big nuclear pile, and you melt your way down through the ice and eventually you get down into the water,” he said. “Then you set your robotic submarine free and it goes around and swims with the big Europa whales.” You can see the rest of that interview here.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute