Fuck yea, Bros. Get ready to find out if there’s life outside Earth within our solar system, because we are for certain sending a probe to Jupiter’s largest moon, Europa.
That’s because the White House, in its proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, bumped up NASA’s funding by half a billion from last year. Included in it is $30 million in funding for a mission to the object in our solar system best thought to harbor life.
Though the moon of Jupiter–which is just a bit smaller than our own–is completely covered in ice, scientists have long speculated that the ocean underneath could be kept warm enough from tidal forces and plate tectonics to sustain life.
Think about how creepy that would be. Tons of space fish swimming under an ice shell, circling Jupiter, possibly plotting our death. From Discovery:
Europa is thought to possess a vast sub-surface ocean beneath its thick icy crust, kept in a liquid state via tidal interactions with the gas giant. Possibly containing three times the volume of water held in Earth’s oceans — and because on Earth, where there’s water, there’s life — astrobiologists hypothesize that Europa’s ocean might be quite a cozy place for biology to gain a foothold.
Although Europa’s ocean may be up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) deep, the conditions at the bottom of that monstrous abyss may be akin to the environment at the bottom of Earth’s comparatively shallow Mariana Trench, the deepest region of the Pacific Ocean, which is 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) deep. Complex biology has evolved in Mariana’s cold, dark environment, so it’s not such a stretch to think that if there is life in Europa’s ocean, it may also be thriving, extracting energy not from the sun (via photosynthesis), but from chemosynthesis near hydrothermal vents.
You think you’ve seen death squids on planet Earth, you have no idea what the death squids all the way out there will look like. Probably Vermicious Knids. Now, thanks to the monies, NASA’s got an audacious plan to find these fuckers. We’re calling it the Europa Clipper, because fuck yea we are.
The Clipper concept has been an idea undergoing preliminary studies for some time, consisting of a Jupiter-orbiting spacecraft that will make multiple flybys of the Jovian moon Europa over a 3 year period. The spacecraft will dive deep into Jupiter’s radiation belts to fly over Europa’s surface approximately 45 times during its primary mission.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is currently orbiting Saturn, has carried out similar flybys of moon Titan, constructing a comprehensive map of its surface and measuring the moon’s thick atmosphere. The Europa Clipper will be focused on Europa in an effort to understand its habitable potential.
Don’t let the whole icy Hothness of the planet fool you. That crust might be beneficial to fostering life.
What’s more, the icy crust of Europa would shield the ocean from the powerful radiation above.
“The radiation is stopped in the upper 10′s of centimeters to a meter” of icy crust, said [JPL senior research scientist Robert] Pappalardo, who is principal investigator for the Europa Clipper concept.
Unfortunately, this mission won’t be able to definitively prove there is life on Europa, just if it’s possible.
“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 [astrobiologist Kevin] Hand. To search for life, argues Hand, a surface mission would be required, a technological feat that is currently out of our scope.
The instrumentation to be chosen to fly on the Europa Clipper spacecraft will observe Europa’s finest scales of a few feet, a scale that we currently know nothing about. Of particular interest will be what the famous reddish veins across Europa’s icy crust are composed of and whether they contain any organic compounds. Also, as the spacecraft will fly close to the moon, it could ‘sniff’ Europa’s possible water-rich geysers that the Hubble Space Telescope recently detected.
MMMMHH. Smell mah shit, says Europa. Disappointing as it is the Clip won’t be able to find life for certain, it’s still going to be a marvelous experiment, if solely for the technology involved.
For the Europa Clipper to explore the moon at such close proximity would require some tough shielding and clever orbital planning to protect the spacecraft’s sensitive electronics.
“It’s a jungle out there around Jupiter! It’s a jungle of radiation,” said Sara Susca, Europa Clipper payload systems engineer.
Jupiter’s magnetic field acts as a powerful particle accelerator, blasting anything within its magnetosphere with particles traveling at 50-200 meters per second. So when these particles hit things, they can be lethal for spacecraft.
Damn son. That’s a boss planet. You don’t fuck with Jupiter. But we are going to try.
To mitigate this problem, Susca envisions a highly elliptical orbit that will take the Clipper deep into Jupiter’s radiation belts for short periods of time, amassing the lowest possible dosage of radiation per orbit. In addition, the Clipper concept will have a “vault”; a section of the spacecraft with heavy shielding that will act like a ‘skull’ to the orbiter’s ‘brains.’
Overall, “the spacecraft will be quite big,” added Susca. “It will have two large solar panels both about 29 feet by 4 feet.” The main body of the vehicle will be about 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall, approximately the size of school bus.
We are still a ways away. The spacecraft won’t be ready to launch until sometime next decade. Even then, at best, it would take three years to get there and, more likely, seven to eight.
That’s because the solar system is fucking huge. Talk to you in 2030, Bros.
So, by now, I mean in 15 years. Sorry about that.