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.
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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.
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"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.
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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.