Jupiter's Europa moon 'likeliest to have life'

Feb 17, 2013 by Jean-Louis Santini
A NASA photo shows reddish spots and shallow pits peppering the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa in this view combining information from images from NASA's Galileo spacecraft 31 May, 1998. US astronomers looking for life in the solar system believe that Europa, which has an ocean, is much more promising than desert-covered Mars, which is currently the focus of the US government's attention.

US astronomers looking for life in the solar system believe that Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, which has an ocean, is much more promising than desert-covered Mars, which is currently the focus of the US government's attention.

"Europa is the most likely place in our beyond Earth to possess .... ," said Robert Pappalardo, a at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

"And it is the place we should be exploring now that we have a concept mission we think is the right one to get there for an affordable cost," he continued.

"Europa is the most promising in terms of because of its relatively thin ice shelf and an ocean ... And we know there are oxidants on the surface of Europa."

At the request of NASA, a proposed mission to explore Europa was revised to significantly reduce the cost, the scientist told the media on the sidelines of an annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) underway here.

As a result of this review, the JPL and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland developed a new exploration project named Clipper with a total coast of two billion dollars minus the launch.

Following the successful example of , a probe that explored Titan, a moon of Saturn, a spacecraft would Jupiter and conduct numerous close flybys of Europa.

A 12-frame mosaic released by NASA 06 March 2000 provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter's moon Europa that faces the giant planet. US astronomers looking for life in the solar system believe that Europa, which has an ocean, is much more promising than desert-covered Mars, which is currently the focus of the US government's attention.

"That way we can get effectively global coverage of Europa by doing many many flybys," Pappalardo argued. "And that can do outstanding science—not quite as good as an orbiter, but not that bad—for half the cost, which is two billions dollars over the life of the mission excluding the launch."

If the plan is approved, Clipper could be launched by 2021 and take three to six years to reach Europa. By comparison, it takes six months to reach Mars.

But NASA already announced at the end of 2012 that there will be no funds for the Clipper mission in the current atmosphere of budgetary cuts, he said.

However, the space agency announced in December that it was sending to Mars in 2020 a new robot similar to Curiosity, a project that cost an estimated $2.5 billion.

Curiosity, which arrived on the Red Planet in August 2012, is trying to find out whether life was possible on Mars in the past.

Under the current plans of robotic exploration, after the arrival of the probe Juno to Jupiter's in 2016 and its planned crash a year later, the United States will no longer have probes in the distant reaches of the solar system.

NASA could, however, participate in a mission to Jupiter by the European Space Agency (ESA) called "Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer," during which a spacecraft is expected to arrive to its destination around 2030.

Noting that Mars consumed most attention in the course of NASA's exploration of the solar system, Pappalardo said the agency should not ignore planets that have a high scientific priority.

In his view, life could have existed on Mars several billion years ago, but Europa could have life today.

"If Europa is the best place in the after Earth to host , Encelade (a Saturn Moon) is right up there as well," said Amanda Hendrix, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. "It has at least a subsurface sea, if not an ocean, and there is geological activity.

"It has heat at the south pole and is ejecting water particles in a geyser and other components in the south pole plume.

Europa was closely observed for the first time by the twin Voyager probes in 1979 and then, in more detail, by Galileo in the 1990s.

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alfie_null
3.3 / 5 (4) Feb 17, 2013
The proposed Mars mission is _landing_ on the planet. The proposed Jupiter/Europa mission is merely flying by the moon several times. A more detailed explanation of the science that can be derived would be helpful.
verkle
1 / 5 (27) Feb 17, 2013
I like the expression "likeliest to have life". In fact you could say it has a million times better chance to have life than Mars. But, a million times zero is still zero.

I wish the government would stop wasting my tax dollars on such fruitless searches. There is no chance life could have evolved on either of these places. The mathematical probability is exactly equivalent to zero.

Shootist
2.6 / 5 (14) Feb 17, 2013
I like the expression "likeliest to have life". In fact you could say it has a million times better chance to have life than Mars. But, a million times zero is still zero.

I wish the government would stop wasting my tax dollars on such fruitless searches. There is no chance life could have evolved on either of these places. The mathematical probability is exactly equivalent to zero.



dudette,

I often complain about the money wasted on Shuttle, $2billion a year whether it flew or not. But, actually , the money spent in pursuit of knowledge is small compared to the complete waste that is the government.
aaron1960
4.6 / 5 (10) Feb 17, 2013
With a small paradigm shift the US Military can change focus from defending us from terrorists to defending us from space objects and all those trillions of dollars can be better spent on space activity and research instead of wasted on earthly military defences
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
4.2 / 5 (6) Feb 17, 2013
This is an agenda driven article, so it glosses over many points.

- Kudos for asking for a second opinion, though. The main lead on Cassini, Carolyn Porco, is pushing for Enceladus as the most likeliest habitat, and the easiest (cheapest) to assess for life.

- Europe missions, specifically the proposed one, would not easily assess life due to the thick ice. Mars would probably get there first, as for example Gale exposes sediments from its surface habitable period.

- Granted, Europe would teach us more about typical ice moons than Enceladus. But Mars will teach us more about Earth's early history, since we ourselves lack crust from that time (due to plate tectonics).

- The next Mars rover was already paid for under the current program (and is reusing spare Curiosity parts). It is _not_ prioritizing Mars specifically.

- The surface oxidants of Europa is a mixed blessing. An energy source as it slowly convects with the ice in, but also a poison for early life.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
4.4 / 5 (9) Feb 17, 2013
@verkle: Generally, the observed certainty that places that hosts alkaline hydrothermal vents has to have life is 100 %. RNA replicator strands _have_ to crystallize from a "gas" of various strands due to specific molecule thermodynamics, same as all crystals have to form under conditions of precipitation. ["Thermodynamic Basis for the Emergence of Genomes during Prebiotic Evolution", Woo et al, PLOS Comp Biol 2012.]

If Europa and Enceladus have access to such vents is uncertain, which is precisely why people want to look there. The science community certainly don't see this as waste of investment, and they are the specialists.

But if US won't go because they are too poor or too cheapskate, the rest of the world will and they will reap all the benefits of a vital science. Your loss is the rest of the world's gain.

@aaron: Terrorists criminals are much more damaging existing threats. The main problem with US politics is that they create more terrorists than they kill.
Lurker2358
1.3 / 5 (8) Feb 17, 2013
It's really naive of NASA, or any other science institution, to believe that a few probes or rover on planets are going to find any signs of any alleged life that may have been there.

Consider all the archaeologists and paleontologists on Earth, yet 9 times out of 10 the discoveries are made by a construction crew digging a ditch or foundation. So you have hundreds of thousands of professionals, and even billions of humans searching either intentionally or accidentally for ancient life on Earth, and even then we only find "new" things once in a while, once every year or ten.

With those mathematics, it would take tens of billions of years for a robotic probe to find anything on Mars...longer than the life time of the solar system....and that's assuming anything ever existed there at all.

Maybe the entire record has been destroyed by win erosion, which would totally destroy all macro fossils and probably all microbes too given enough time...probably nothing to find either way...
dan42day
1.4 / 5 (10) Feb 17, 2013
The main problem with US politics is that they create more terrorists than they kill.


The main problem with US politics is that they create more burger flippers than engineers and scientists combined.
NickFun
4.2 / 5 (5) Feb 17, 2013
I wouldn't dismiss the idea of Europa having life at all. Life has been found in the most extreme places on Earth. With an ocean and internal heat it's quite likely.
Cave_Man
2.5 / 5 (10) Feb 17, 2013


dudette,

I often complain about the money wasted on Shuttle, $2billion a year whether it flew or not. But, actually , the money spent in pursuit of knowledge is small compared to the complete waste that is the government.


Typical moron right wing asshat. Do me a favor and look at a graph comparing our govt expenditures. See how Nasa's budget is invisible and the "Defense and Military" budget is taking up 99% of the rest of the graph. But you are right, lets get rid of govt and all things govt, like roads and street lights and those ugly subsidized power lines and schools and mental institutions. We will all be fine without any of that. Idiot.
Cave_Man
2 / 5 (7) Feb 17, 2013
Also...with a meteor hitting Russia this week, you would think the need to colonize space would seem a little more pertinent now.

There have been THEE near misses with BIG rocks within the last year, two of them were out of the blue, we knew about them AS THEY HAPPENED pretty much.

Stop acting like you know a god damn thing about anything, we're not as far from monkey's as you might like to think....well some of us...
Jonseer
2.6 / 5 (7) Feb 17, 2013
Carolyn Porco, is pushing for Enceladus as the most likeliest habitat, and the easiest (cheapest) to assess for life.


I'd love to see her #s proving it would be cheaper to go to Saturn and get in the necessary orbit to do the studies needed to find life there there.

Testing the vapor that shoots from the vents is no easy task nor sufficient to find life.

Going to Saturn would be about as expensive as sending a robot to the surface of Europa. It IS THAT FAR, and THAT expensive to get there.

As far as being cheap or poor, exactly how many major missions have ESA done solo?

The only big economy in the EU doing well is Germany. The rest of the EU is doing far worse than us. The austerity policies ensure the economic downward spiral will continue.

I WISH the EU could step in, but CHEAP defines the EU not the USA.

Oh and when it comes to space exploration Russia is NOT Europe, nor is China.

Neither will share the spotlight or riches with cheap EU more than we have.
Sinister1811
2.1 / 5 (8) Feb 17, 2013
The proposed Mars mission is _landing_ on the planet. The proposed Jupiter/Europa mission is merely flying by the moon several times. A more detailed explanation of the science that can be derived would be helpful.


Far out. I thought they were going to land there, and start drilling/melting through the thick ice sheet. Another flyby mission certainly won't tell us if there's life there.
iwishtothink
3 / 5 (5) Feb 18, 2013
I agree with an earlier comment that Carolyn Porco is indeed asking us to pay attention to Enceladus as a possible life source. I think we should concentrate our efforts there. We have data already from flyby's of Enceladus' geysers which should peak our interest a bit more. I wonder Robert Pappalardo considers "relatively thin ice shield.." I may be wrong but in my past reading this "thin" ice shield was 60 miles thick. Again coming from a nation of "burger flippers" (earlier misguided comment--jealous?) I could be wrong.
Osiris1
1.7 / 5 (3) Feb 18, 2013
Instead of 'flybys', how about a Dawn style expedition to Europa with a spacecraft that can fly there quicker, and orbit the planet all while using less fuel and getting more done with more power. A nuclear electric propulsion dawn style craft with maybe twelve thrusters would get us there and do a LOT of science and be able to carry more payload.
ScottyB
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 19, 2013


- Europe missions, specifically the proposed one, would not easily assess life due to the thick ice. Mars would probably get there first, as for example Gale exposes sediments from its surface habitable period.

- Granted, Europe would teach us more about typical ice moons than Enceladus. But Mars will teach us more about Earth's early history, since we ourselves lack crust from that time (due to plate tectonics).



Europe?!

No need to search for life here!
sirchick
5 / 5 (3) Feb 24, 2013
I like the expression "likeliest to have life". In fact you could say it has a million times better chance to have life than Mars. But, a million times zero is still zero.

I wish the government would stop wasting my tax dollars on such fruitless searches. There is no chance life could have evolved on either of these places. The mathematical probability is exactly equivalent to zero.



Care to share your equation to how you came about this probability? You must be connected to the universe better than any past or present genius scientists to be THAT certain. A true gift to behold.. or did you already visit these places with a microscope and covered every inch of the surface?

Oh i forgot this....> [/end sarcasm].

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