If we landed on Europa, what would we want to know?

Aug 07, 2013
This artist's concept shows a simulated view from the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. Europa's potentially rough, icy surface, tinged with reddish areas that scientists hope to learn more about, can be seen in the foreground. The giant planet Jupiter looms over the horizon. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

(Phys.org) —Most of what scientists know of Jupiter's moon Europa they have gleaned from a dozen or so close flybys from NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1979 and NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the mid-to-late 1990s. Even in these fleeting, paparazzi-like encounters, scientists have seen a fractured, ice-covered world with tantalizing signs of a liquid water ocean under its surface. Such an environment could potentially be a hospitable home for microbial life. But what if we got to land on Europa's surface and conduct something along the lines of a more in-depth interview? What would scientists ask? A new study in the journal Astrobiology authored by a NASA-appointed science definition team lays out their consensus on the most important questions to address.

"If one day humans send a robotic lander to the surface of Europa, we need to know what to look for and what tools it should carry," said Robert Pappalardo, the study's lead author, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa, but studies like these will help us focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations. Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for ."

The paper was authored by scientists from a number of other NASA centers and universities, including the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Texas, Austin; and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The team found the most important questions clustered around composition: what makes up the reddish "freckles" and reddish cracks that stain the icy surface? What kind of chemistry is occurring there? Are there , which are among the building blocks of life?

Additional priorities involved improving our images of Europa - getting a look around at features on a human scale to provide context for the compositional measurements. Also among the top priorities were questions related to geological activity and the presence of liquid water: how active is the surface? How much rumbling is there from the periodic gravitational squeezes from its planetary host, the giant planet Jupiter? What do these detections tell us about the characteristics of below the icy surface?

"Landing on the surface of Europa would be a key step in the astrobiological investigation of that world," said Chris McKay, a senior editor of the journal Astrobiology, who is based at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "This paper outlines the science that could be done on such a lander. The hope would be that materials, possibly near the linear crack features, include biomarkers carried up from the ocean."

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More information: online.liebertpub.com/doi/full… 0.1089/ast.2013.1003

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User comments : 17

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rug
3.7 / 5 (9) Aug 07, 2013
If we landed on Europa, what would we want to know?

1) Is there life currently?
2) Had there been life in the past?
3) If no life is present could we use this water to make fuel, O2, and needed water for later trips to the outer solar system? This would reduce the amount of stuff we would need to take from Earth.
4) If there is life, is it related to us in some way?

There are many more I would like answered but I think that would cover the most pressing questions.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (2) Aug 07, 2013
If one day humans send a robotic lander to the surface of Europa, we need to know what to look for and what tools it should carry

A (video!) camera. A GOOD microscope (I'm always wondering why that is never included in any Mars or Moon mission?) Preferrably also an AFM or at least an electron microscope, and a spectrometer. (Don't forget the chlorophyl detector)

Additionally something that can dig down more than a few millimeters (which shouldn't be too hard given the icy nature of Europa). Preferrably one of those heated pods that could go several kilometers down to search for a submerged ocean.
Gmr
2.6 / 5 (7) Aug 07, 2013
EVERYTHING!

Oh, and does salt water on that body contain organics, or are they introduced? Are they generated if there at the surface boundary or from within the moon and occasionally extruded onto the surface?

I think the answers to those questions might determine what kind of follow up mission we might mount.
JustChris
3.3 / 5 (3) Aug 07, 2013
@antialias, although I agree with your proposals, I know that all these instruments (apart from the camera) are very very difficult to carry on a spacecraft.
Concerning the microscope, it requires an enormous amount of stuff to calibrate, which is means it needs to be calibrated in orbit (or once landed), since the launch, the burns (trajectory changes) and the landing will mess up the calibration greatly. Now, concerning an electron microscope, that's going to be very difficult. Look up images of electron microscope to have an idea of the scale of the system. Then you need some robotic arm to pick and place what you want to observe. I'm not saying that can't be done, I'm just saying probably not on the first unmanned spacecraft to Europa.
exp_x_
4.1 / 5 (10) Aug 07, 2013
ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (7) Aug 07, 2013
Is the surface ice? Is there water?
Sinister1811
1 / 5 (6) Aug 08, 2013
Has anyone here seen the movie Europa Report?
Sinister1811
1 / 5 (5) Aug 08, 2013
I'm still waiting for NASA to send their next probe to Europa. They've already planned to send a submarine that melts through the ice shell. We don't yet know whether or not there's a liquid ocean, or whether there's life there. That's what most of us are anticipating, but it looks as though we'll be waiting quite a while.
Urgelt
1.5 / 5 (4) Aug 08, 2013
Uh... Sinister1811, NASA has not 'planned' to send a submarine that melts through Europa's ice shell.

It's just one of many ideas being kicked around, and in this case, an impractical one, since the power required to melt through the ice is fantastically enormous, and communicating with the submarine once it's under the ice is an unsolved problem.

cantdrive85, yes, the surface of Europa is 'dirty ice.' It's not proven that there is liquid water in the interior, but it seems fairly likely. The surface is active; some sort of geological process is wiping out cratering, and the best candidate is eruptions of liquid water. Models also suggest that with Jupiter's tidal energy input, there should be enough heat in the interior to permit liquid water.

Europa is a very interesting place in the solar system for science. Though Mars is also interesting; if it once had life at the surface, there's still a decent chance microbes might be living deep below the surface.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 08, 2013
Concerning the microscope, it requires an enormous amount of stuff to calibrate

I'mnot sure an optical microscope requires calibration. These can be manufactured rather robustly (I'd argue even more so than a camera, since they don't need to be on swivel mounts)

As for an AFM: Once worked with a company that did nanomotors (with 10 nanometer step resolution and 2cm range (6 orders of magnitude!)). They built an AFM with this that fit in the palm of your hand, and didn't even need a vacuum chamber since the vibration susceptibility goes with the third power of the size. Extremely robust and self calibrating. Of less use than an electron microscope, though, which are significantly more cumbersome. There are electron microscopes that are only marginally larger than lab-grade light microscopes. Energy source would be the greatest problem here - not size/weight.)
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 08, 2013
since the power required to melt through the ice is fantastically enormous, and communicating with the submarine once it's under the ice is an unsolved problem.

As far as I understand the designs one proposal is to use radioactive material (like onthe Mars rovers) to continually create power and heat and slowly melt through the ice. While going down it would spool out an optical fiber behind it embedded in the refreezing ice mass. This seems doable up to significant depths (with the poviso that there aren't any rocky structures in the way).

The VALKYRIE prototype to be tested in Antarctica will use a laser that is fed through the optical fibre to power a heating element (which requires a somewhat thicker cable, limiting the amount of cable that can be carried by the probe, but you aren't alowe dto use nuclear material in Antarctica). The advantage is that your power source can be as large as you want as it sits on the surface.

Seems practical to me.
Picard
5 / 5 (1) Aug 08, 2013
I think this should be NASA's next priority. Forget about Mars. There is more to be gained by going to Europa.
Sinister1811
1 / 5 (4) Aug 08, 2013
Uh... Sinister1811, NASA has not 'planned' to send a submarine that melts through Europa's ice shell.

It's just one of many ideas being kicked around, and in this case, an impractical one, since the power required to melt through the ice is fantastically enormous, and communicating with the submarine once it's under the ice is an unsolved problem.


Oops, my mistake. It's just that I remembered hearing about this a few years back. I should've checked the website to confirm. This was one of two mission ideas, though - the other was to send a balloon to explore Titan's atmosphere.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Aug 08, 2013
There is more to be gained by going to Europa.

Agreed. Europa, Io, Ganymede and (maybe) Titan should come first. The real use of another (even manned) Mars mission is currently dubious (beyond great PR).If they want to have a cool Mars mission then a lander for Phobos or Deimos would be my pick (which would also serve as an excellent long-term observation post for Mars) - possibly with a sample return, as a takeoff from the Moons is much easier than from the surface of Mars.

I'm not too thrilled about balloon-type missions. Even though they afford wide coverage I don't see how one could get anything marginally better than photos from an orbiter and maybe a bit of atmospheric chemistry (which is already available via spectroscopy). They're certainly not nearly good enough to solve the real exciting questions about whether there was/is life there.
marraco
2.5 / 5 (8) Aug 08, 2013
Isn't Europa subject to heavy radiation surrounding Jupiter? We need to know how deep in the ice we need to bury equipment to be shielded from the radiation. And measure how frequently and how deep micrometeorites penetrate the ice, so we can send a long term expedition in the future, either manned or robotic.
marraco
2.1 / 5 (7) Aug 08, 2013
More important than Europe, we need to settle bodies with an important content of ice on the asteroid belt, so we can produce fuel and oxygen to replenish other missions, and reduce exploration costs.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (5) Aug 10, 2013
Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today
Naw, I don't think so. I still think that Titan is the most likely place to find life of some sort, or at least the most likely place to find some kind of ammonia/water cycle presenting opportunities for its emergence for short durations. Titan is described as having all the conditions of a pre-biotic Earth (Carl Sagan). Furthermore, I am almost certain that we will one day find methanogens deep in the ferrite substrata of Mars' crust, along with oil, believe it or not. I just don't think that Europa has all of the components necessary for any life to emerge.

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