Jupiter’s moon of Europa has long been in the sights of the science community as a prime candidate for the search for life in our solar system. In 2012, after the Hubble Space Telescope detected water vapor above the southern polar region, scientists surmised that they came from watery plumes ejected from a liquid water ocean under the moon’s surface. Many believe it stands a very good chance of harboring life. Already a mission is in the works to send an orbiter to Europa to perform a variety of observations, including confirming the plumes’ existence, mapping the thickness of the ice mantle, searching for warmer water regions, and more. The area around Europa is bathed in massive radiation from Jupiter, which prohibits any spacecraft from staying for long. Instead of hanging around the moon, the orbiter will zip in and out, making 45 flybys over a number of years at a distance ranging from 16 to 1700 miles.
While an orbiter may present evidence supporting possible life, there is no substitute for “boots on the ground.” In February, NASA sent a letter requesting scientists to join a science definition team for a possible lander mission to Europa. The outcome of that team will allow NASA to define possible experiments to be a part of the lander. The good news is that lander technology is now tried and proven with all the Mars missions, so limited new technology would need to be employed – presumably only something to help shield from Jupiter’s radiation.
Why is the Lander Mission Important?
If life is found on another body within our solar system, it changes the whole equation about how common life might be throughout the universe. Once and for all, the question changes from “is there life out there?” to “where is there life out there?” And finding a life form that developed outside of Earth’s ecosystem presents massive opportunities for life science disciplines.
Could There Be Life Elsewhere in Our Solar System?
A few months ago I wrote a post about Saturn’s moon of Enceladus. As potentially on Europa, the Cassini mission detected plumes of water that shoot 300 miles off its surface.
There is proof that water once flowed across the Martian surface, and more recently evidence was uncovered that it occasionally still does.
Saturn’s massive moon has oceans, lakes and rivers of methane. Some believe that methane can support life like water does. If true, Titan could be a treasure trove of science.
As big as a planet – or a once-planet: Pluto – Triton has everything a growing life form needs: water, energy (there are active volcanoes on it), and presumably the necessary ingredients. This moon of Neptune is a good a place as any to look for life – except that it’s way out there.
Other Good Bets:
Ganymede: Jupiter’s moon – and the largest in the solar system – has an ocean under 100 miles of ice.
Callisto: Another Jupiter satellite – you just have to drill through 60 miles of rock to get to its sub-surface ocean.
Ceres: The asteroid that wants to be a planet might have an icy crust and water underneath.
Dione: Called a “weaker copycat of Enceladus,” this moon of Saturn likely has water on it.
Venus: Yes, this 850 degree hell of a planet could have life in its cooler upper atmosphere.
Pluto: Recent images show that there is geologic activity (hence, energy) and the possibility of water.