NASA picks 9 tools to scope out icy moon – and maybe alien life

Europa, frozen moon of Jupiter, might hold vast oceans and even life. NASA has OK'd a fleet of instruments aimed at exposing her secrets.

The space agency recently announced the selection of that will be used to analyze Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter that may be home to subglacial oceans and, possibly, life. “This is a giant step in our search for oases that could support life in our own celestial backyard,” Curt Niebur, scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in announcing the program. “We’re confident that this versatile set of science instruments will produce exciting discoveries on a much-anticipated mission.” After soliciting proposals for Europa instruments last year, NASA reviewed 33 possibilities and selected nine instruments, from ice-penetrating radar to thermal imaging systems. The aim: Get intimate with a moon that could hold twice as much water as the Earth -- and be home to life. “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," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “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.” The instruments are not off-the-shelf solutions. “A lot of people mistakenly believe that we simply use standard instruments on our missions. We don’t,” Niebur told FCW. “Each instrument is a unique piece specially designed to do its unique job in a unique environment.” The nine below, per NASA’s announcement: The instruments won’t be scoping out Europa for years. “It’s important to keep in mind that the [investigators] did not submit proposals with the final blueprints for their instruments,” Niebur told FCW. “They provided a ‘first draft’ of a design for their instruments … [b]ut now the rubber meets the road. They need to prove the design will work, and to improve it as needed.” Niebur noted that investigators will face the “big challenge” of designing instruments that work together and with the entire spacecraft. Over the next two years, spacecraft and instrument design will be iteratively tweaked in an “incredibly complex and detailed” process to ensure everything fits together, Niebur said. Actually building hardware will take another three years, and that will be followed by roughly a year and a half of assembly and testing. “Of course, the pace at which we work is dependent upon how much funding we receive,” Niebur said. “But even with all the money in the world you can only physically fit so many people around the spacecraft at a time to work on it.” The selection of scientific instruments is a huge step forward, Niebur said, but the design of the spacecraft’s power, propulsion and other systems will be tough. “Imagine your car having to survive temperature fluctuations of hundreds of degrees, radiation levels like those inside a nuclear reactor, rocks being thrown at it, huge vibrations, etc.,” Niebur said. “And no maintenance or checkups ever.” And despite the progress, the fact that much remains to be done may be best demonstrated by NASA’s statement on the tool that would actually get the other tools off the launch pad: “[I]t is premature to discuss a rocket for a Europa mission at this time.” The Europa mission has $30 million set aside in the president’s fiscal 2016 , a figure slated to ramp up to $100 million by 2020.

Europa could hold twice as much water as the Earth -- and be home to life. (Image: NASA)

NASA is trekking toward the answer to one of science’s most intriguing questions: Are humans truly alone in our solar system?

nine instruments

The tools to chart the moon

Europa program

  • Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) -- principal investigator Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md. 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 Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 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 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 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 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 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 Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio, Texas. 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 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 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.
The rest of the mission

budget request

NEXT STORY: 'More lapdog than watchdog'

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.