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Going to Europa February 19, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Extraterrestrial life, Space.
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Great news! After much deliberation, scientists at NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) have decided to send their next major mission to Jupiter’s moons, with Europa as a top priority. The debate had been between checking out Jupiter’s moons or Saturn’s moons, but in the latest news they seem to have decided to hell with it, let’s do both.
This is good news because Europa is generally seen as one of the most likely places for extraterrestrial life to exist in the solar system. Read a short article discussing the possibility of life on Europa here. A shell of ice covers its surface which scientists have estimated could be anywhere between three and one hundred kilometres thick, with the concensus suggesting it’s about twenty-five. Europa has next to no atmosphere, but the ice covering could protect the inner ocean from otherwise lethal radiation.
Although the moon is so far from the sun that liquid water cannot survive on the surface (we’re talking -165C), readings sent back by the Galileo spacecraft, which explored the Jovian system between 1995 and 2003, suggest that there is a warm, liquid ocean of salt water beneath the ice.
Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull puts huge tidal pressure on Europa. This makes the moon’s rocky core compress and shift, which might produce enough heat to keep the ocean warm. Take some warm salty water, toss in some of the organic compounds often found on meteors, and stir.
Scientists are so convinced of the possibility of life that they sent the Galileo probe plunging to its death in Jupiter’s atmosphere rather than crashing into Europa and potentially contaminating any life there.
NASA and ESA will each launch an orbiter in 2020, and it will take six years for the probe to reach the Jovian system. We’ve still got a long time to wait…in the meantime you can read more about the mission here.
Also, here’s a Jet Propulsion Laboratory paper discussing the different possibilities of a Europa lander. It was published in 2003 so may have dated a bit but it’s still worth a look.

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