Planets

NASA's Europa Mission Will Look for Life's Ingredients

NASA on Tuesday selected nine science instruments it believes will best address the burning question about whether Jupiter’s ocean-bearing moon Europa has indications of life.

NASA on Tuesday selected nine science instruments it believes will best address the burning question about whether Jupiter's ocean-bearing moon Europa has indications of life.

NEWS: NASA's Europa Mission to Hunt Down Life's Niches

The suite of instruments includes cameras, heat mappers, chemical analyzers, surface-penetrating radar and a sample collector that may be able to directly study particles from Europa's underground ocean that are shot into space in an erupting plume.

"Answering the big question - is there life in the universe - really starts from understanding if there's life in the solar system. Europa is one of those critical areas where we believe the environment is just perfect for potential development of life. This mission will be that step that helps us understand the environment and hopefully give us an indication how habitable the environment could be," John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.

ANALYSIS: Dazzling New View of Europa's Frozen Red Veins

"If we do find life, or indications of life, that will be an enormous step forward in our understanding of our place in the universe. If there's life in the solar system, and in Europa in particular, it must be everywhere in our galaxy and perhaps even in the universe," he said.

NASA is in the early planning stages of a robotic spacecraft that would make about 45 flybys of Europa over a 2.5-year mission. Launch is targeted for around 2022.

The spacecraft wouldn't look for life directly.

"It would be wonderful if we would see chlorophyll, like you see in Earth plants. But we're not going to see chlorophyll. Mother Nature is not going to be that kind to us. It would be great if we would see fossilized bone sticking up out of the surface. That's not going to happen. Finding evidence of life is very nuanced, it's very delicate, it's very difficult to do," Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist, told Discovery News.

NEWS: Europa's Salty Ocean May be Seeping Through Icy Crust

Instead, the so-called Europa Clipper will be able to determine how much ice overlies the moon's ocean, how much salt is in the ocean and if the brownish material lining cracks in the ice-covered surface contains organics. It also will take very high resolution photographs of the moon and precisely measure temperatures. Scientists will use the data to assess if the moon has habitable niches for life, at least the kind of life that exists on Earth.

The nine instruments will cost NASA about $110 million over the next three years, a small part of the projected $2 billion price tag for the mission. The selections were culled from 33 proposals.

Does life lurk beneath Europa’s frozen shell? NASA’s planned Europa Clipper spacecraft will hunt for telltale signs.

On August 4, the much-anticipated "Wonders of the Solar System" documentary will premier on the Science Channel.

Presenter and physicist Prof. Brian Cox will show you the hidden mysteries of our interplanetary neighborhood, as well as breathtaking sights of the planets, moons and the sun. Cox will also examine some of Earth's extreme environments to see how life has adapted, perhaps helping us understand whether life can exist elsewhere in our solar system. To provide a taster of what you can expect from "Wonders," Discovery News has gathered some facts, figures and the best images of our solar system to assemble a special Wide Angle supporting this groundbreaking documentary. Let's begin, in the orbit of the solar system's biggest planet, Jupiter...

Moons of Jupiter: Io

Welcome to Jupiter, the solar system's biggest planet and host to more than 63 peculiar moons -- a steady contender for moons compared to satellite-strewn Saturn. From sulfur-spewing furnaces to ice-encrusted oceans, these Jovian satellites are anything but normal! Browse through 10 of our favorites here. If you're looking for a fiery, volcanic spectacle, head to Io, the innermost of Jupiter's "big four" moons. Jupiter's gravity pulls at Io so strongly that the land has tides of up to 300 feet (100 meters). This gravitational tug-of-war produces scorching heat and raises more volcanic activity here than anywhere else in the solar system. Io has a sulfurous surface, and its volcanoes spew silicate magma, causing the hellish moon's surface look like a pizza.

Moons of Jupiter: Metis

While it doesn't look like much in this image (the highest-resolution available!), Metis is Jupiter's closest companion -- for now. It's orbiting the gas giant at a distance of just 75,500 miles (128,000 kilometers) and moving faster than Jupiter spins. Metis is so close to Jupiter's surface, in fact, that it will gradually succumb to the planet's gravity and plunge into its churning clouds. This same principle applies to man-made satellites orbiting the Earth; if their orbit is too low, they'll eventually fall.

Moons of Jupiter: Adrastea

Like Metis, Adrastea is on its way down, eventually: Its orbit is just 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) outside of its fellow doomed moon. The two bodies probably provide lots of the material making up Jupiter's main ring, shown in this Galileo spacecraft image. Adrastea is also tiny at a wee 12 miles (20 kilometers) in diameter.

Moons of Jupiter: Ganymede

If Ganymede orbited the sun instead of Jupiter, it would be a planet of its own -- it's even bigger than Mercury. Its interior is made from layers surrounding a rocky core, and its surface is covered in water ice. Although Ganymede doesn't have much of an atmosphere, it does have some ozone gas near its surface. This gas comes from charged particles in Jupiter's magnetic field smacking into the moon's icy crust.

Moons of Jupiter: Themisto

We're not entirely sure what Themisto looks like, but scientists know it one odd little satellite. Unlike most other moons, Themisto is oblong and doesn't fit into the traditional groups of Jovian moons. Because this body is so small -- just 5 miles (8 kilometers) in diameter -- astronomers in 2000 confused it for a new object when it was originally found in 1975. Shown here is a speculative illustration of how the irregular moon might be shaped.

Moons of Jupiter: Callisto

Along with Io, Ganymede, and Europa (which is yet to come in this slide show), Callisto is one of the four Galilean satellites. These are the moons of Jupiter that Galileo discovered while looking through a telescope in 1610. Callisto is about the same size as Mercury, and it's a heavily cratered moon that has almost no geological activity. Callisto's surface may also be one of the oldest landscapes in the solar system, including Earth's moon -- about 4 billion years old.

Moons of Jupiter: Thebe

Along with Metis and Adrastea, Thebe was discovered by scientists studying images from the Voyager spacecraft in 1979 and 1980. It's closer to Jupiter than Io is, but it's not so close that it's in danger of losing its altitude. The material in Jupiter's Gossamer ring probably comes from Thebe and another moon, Amalthea.

Moons of Jupiter: Amalthea

Speaking of Amalthea, shown here is an artist's rendition of the mysterious moon (inset: our best real view so far). Astronomers don't know much about it, but they do know it's the reddest body in the solar system. Unlike the other three moons that lie within Io's orbit -- Thebe, Metis and Adrastea -- Amalthea wasn't discovered by the Voyager science team. Edward Emerson Barnard discovered Amalthea it in 1892, and it had been almost 300 years since anyone had discovered a new moon orbiting Jupiter. Before that, the last person to discover a Jovian moon was Galileo.

Moons of Jupiter: S/2000 J11

This not-to-be-named moon marks an interesting dividing line in the wealth of satellites orbiting Jupiter. S/2000 J11, named after it was found in 2000, moves in the same direction that Jupiter spins -- as do all the moons that are closer to the planet. Almost every distant moon, however, orbits in the opposite (retrograde) direction, as this diagram shows. The only known exception is Carpo, sometimes known as Karpo, which was discovered in 2003.

Moons of Jupiter: Europa

About two-thirds of the Earth is covered in water, but Europa has about twice as much water as our home planet. Europa's might surface is covered in ice, but astronomers are almost convinced there is an ocean of liquid water underneath -- an environment shielded from Jupiter's intense radiation that might be hospitable to life. A cold, salty planet might not seem like a good place to live, but there are species on Earth that thrive in just those conditions.

Slideshow originally posted Feb. 2009.