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NASA Seeks Ideas for Mission to Oceanic Jovian Moon


April 29, 2014
Space

NASA has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to science and engineering communities for ideas for a mission to Europa that could address fundamental questions of the enigmatic moon and the search for life beyond Earth.

The RFI’s focus is for concepts for a mission to Europa that costs less than $1 billion, excluding the launch vehicle that can meet as many of the science priorities as possible recommended by the National Research Council’s 2011 Planetary Science Decadal Survey for the study of Europa.

“This is an opportunity to hear from those creative teams that have ideas on how we can achieve the most science at minimum cost,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Europa is one of the most interesting sites in our solar system in the search for life beyond Earth. The drive to explore Europa has stimulated not only scientific interest but also the ingenuity of engineers and scientists with innovative concepts.”

NASA has studied a variety of mission designs and concepts in previous years and currently is funding the development of technologies that will be needed for the science instruments for a Europa mission. Congress appropriated $80 million for this work in Fiscal Year 2014, and the Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal requests an additional $15 million.

Previous scientific findings point to the existence of a liquid water ocean located under the moon’s icy crust. This ocean covers Europa entirely and contains more liquid water than all of Earth’s oceans combined.

The Decadal Survey deemed a mission to the Jupiter moon as among the highest priority scientific pursuits for NASA. It lists five key science objectives in priority order that are necessary to improve our understanding of this potentially habitable moon.

The mission will need to:

• Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior

• Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange

• Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability

• Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration

• Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.

Although Europa and Jupiter’s other moons have been visited by other spacecraft, they were each limited to a single distant flyby of these satellites. NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989 by the space shuttle, was the only mission to make repeated visits to Europa, passing close by the moon fewer than a dozen times.

In December 2013, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope observed water vapor above the moon’s frigid south polar region. This provided the first strong evidence of water plumes erupting off the moon’s surface, although researchers are still working to verify the existence of these plumes.

Any mission to Europa must take into account the harsh radiation environment that would require unique protection of the spacecraft and instruments. In addition, spacecraft must meet planetary protection requirements intended to protect Europa’s potentially habitable ocean. These requirements are very strict and involve ensuring that a viable Earth organism is not introduced into the Europa ocean.

The RFI is not a request for proposal or formal procurement and therefore is not a solicitation or commitment by the government. Deadline to submit the mission concepts is May 30. To view the RFI in its entirety, visit: http://go.nasa.gov/1lp693R For more information about Europa, visit: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/europa


6 Responses to NASA Seeks Ideas for Mission to Oceanic Jovian Moon

  1. NS Tsotetsi (14066506) May 4, 2014 at 7:41 am #

    This is a highly interesting discovery. Suppose Earth experience drastic natural disasters, it will be possible for human race and most things living on earth to survive on Europa, since there’s water and hydrogen on this planet. In contrast I believe it’s going to be difficult for humans to adapt easily because of different climate changes and we all know that adaptation and survival is brought about natural selection, so some organisms within a population will have to die before before a population can survive, which is a risk most people wouldn’t want to take.

  2. KK 14367310 May 3, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

    Wonderful article. I believe the inclusion of bacteria is in the list because life on Earth began with bacteria about 3.5 billion years ago and evolution took place, but scientists shouldn’t put boundaries, for instance, liquid water, on their search for life in other planets because nature has it’s own way. They should expect the unexpected. I agree with Dean on the sterile probe which is very a crucial matter, we wouldn’t want an outbreak.

  3. Sharon Moshokwa (14028663) April 30, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    Indeed the blog is interesting and also the hard work that the astronomers are doing. I also agree with you all that water is a sign that shows the possibility of life. The level of Oxygen should also be taken to account since we all know that it is a very important gas for life and also CO2 and some other gases.

  4. Dean Herbig (14069882) April 30, 2014 at 6:36 am #

    Water as we know it on Earth is one of the fundamental substances that is required for life as we know it. That is why scientists are interested in planets or moons that contain water. If liquid water is found on Europa, then it could be possible that life exists there, whether it be intelligent or not. If NASA launches a probe to investigate Europa, then the probe should be sterile as not to interfere with the life forms that may already exist on the planet. The atmosphere of the planet or moon must also be taken into account when looking for life. What is the composition of Europa’s moon?

  5. Thomas Bates - 14068312 April 29, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    This blog has interested me and held me captivated so much so that I researched more about it. As Charissa (14277761) stated, any life searched for would be in the form of prokaryotes, single celled – nuclear free – organisms, not intelligent life capable of communication such as humans, which as stated is a common misconception.

    In any case, whether finding a simple bacteria cell or a multi-cellular organism, it would be the first conclusive evidence that we are not alone and that Earth is not the only planet to harvest life. If life as simple as bacteria would be found on Europia, it would provide evidence that life could be possible somewhere else in our universe and that, in a matter of fact, intelligent life such as Humans could exist.

    Even if life does not exist on Europia, this expedition would still be an enormous feat. It could provide evidence of past life or even to determine the last 2 objectives stated in the passage.

    But why is there a strict requirement that no viable Earth organism is allowed to be introduced to Europia’s Ocean? And if life is found, what other implications does that have on the scientific community and what further research would be done?

  6. Charissa (14277761) April 29, 2014 at 6:45 am #

    I recently attended a public lecture on the topic of life beyond our earth. The lecture identified three places in the solar system that were thought likely to support life, namely Mars, Europa, and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The lecture showed that these places were most suitable because thay were the only ones that showed any sign of having liquid water at some time. The lecture went on to discuss NASA mission to Mars and the Curiosity rover that is currently exploring Mars. I find it very interesting that NASA is now investigating the possibility of sending a mission to Europa. This mission could be very instructive on the possibility of life beyond the earth. I also found it interesting during that lecture that the form of life was that was being searched for was very often bacteria. This means that life outside of our planet doesn’t nessecarily mean intelligent life, which I think is often a popular misconception.

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