NASA moves a step closer to icy Europa; announces $30 million funding for probe

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US space agency NASA has moved a step closer to Jupiter’s moon Europa by announcing a $30 million funding to send a probe to examine the icy moon believed by scientists to conceal a deep ocean that could potentially harbour life in some form.

Europa is a little smaller than Earth’s moon, but far enough that Sun’s heat isn’t able to melt its thick ice sheet – which according to some estimates is as thick as 100 kilometers (62 miles). The ice isn’t the thing that scientists are interested in – it’s what lurks inside the thick ice sheet.

Scientists have long suspected that the network of cracks on Jupiter’s moon could indicate a large volume of water underneath, and latest analysis of magnetic field data from the Galileo probe have increased the possibility of presence of a salty ocean underneath the ice. Previous studies has estimated that Europa may contain three times as much water as Earth.

The $30 million funding for the probe dubbed ‘Europa Clipper’ over the course of next year will move Nasa’s Europa probe to the planning phase. The probe will be orbiting Jupiter allowing it to conduct multiple flybys of Europa and complete a minute study of its surface. The closest passes would be just 25 kilometers above the surface.

Europa Clipper has been a concept for the last 15 years and the latest funding gives it a green signal to move towards a concrete plan and a possible launch in mid-2020 subject to availability of further funding.

The project would aim to establish proof of whether or not Europa contains the ingredients for biological life. “The way we framed the Europa mission science objectives is not to specifically look for life, but to understand habitability; the ingredients for life”, said Kevin Hand, a senior NASA scientist.

Robert Pappalardo, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told New Scientist: “This is a big deal. We’re moving forward to the next phase, where you’re a real mission. It’s just thrilling.”

NASA will be taking into account all that it has learnt from its Cassini mission to Saturn and build up on that for Europa Clipper. Concept stage plans peg Europa Clipper as a large spacecraft with two 29-foot solar panels and a main body the size of a school bus. The plans also reveal that it will be similar in scale to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and will be housing its scientific instruments inside heavy radiation shielded vaults to protect them from dangerous particles zipping around Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.

Two space missions have been planned for Europa with NASA’s Europa Clipper being one of them and European Space Agency’s probe, which is to launch in 2022, being the second one.