The Europa Lander mission

In the space exploration world many are excited by the possibilities of a robotic mission to the distant moon of Europa for scientific investigation. The mission plan from NASA is titled ‘Europa Clipper’ and it’s promo page can be found here:

The scientific merits of such an expedition need not be repeated, and are well explained enough on the main site, so instead I’ll focus on offering a layman’s explanation of the intriguing technical aspects in the press release.

Of special note is the instrument payload:

“The spacecraft’s science instruments will measure the depth of the ice crust, measure the depth of the internal ocean and how thick and salty it is, capture color images of surface geology in detail, and analyze potential plumes.”

i.e. it will utilize novel techniques and technologies in order to accomplish something never before attempted on another body in the solar system.

“Scientists are especially interested in what makes up the moon’s surface. Evidence suggests that material exposed there has been mixed through the icy crust and perhaps comes from the ocean beneath.”

i.e. There is a likely probability of very astonishing discoveries akin to the unexpected images returned by the New Horizons probe.

“Europa Clipper will also investigate the moon’s gravity field, which will tell scientists more about both how the moon flexes as Jupiter pulls on it and how that action could potentially warm the internal ocean.”

i.e. Many alternative usages both forseen, and unforseen, are planned for the mission payload. This could very well be a very long lasting mission, akin to the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, far exceeding it’s nominal projected lifespan.

““We’re doing work that a decade from now will change how we think about the diversity of worlds in the outer solar system – and about where life might be able to exist right now, not in the distant past,” said Europa Clipper Project Scientist Robert Pappalardo of JPL.”

i.e. This is more than an academic and curiosity satisfication exercise, there will likely be practical consequences to the future evolution of scientific effort, space exploration effort, biological efforts, and long term planning of future missions.

“But the more instruments a spacecraft carries, the more they interact and potentially affect each other’s operation. To that end, noted Pappalardo, “We’re currently making sure the instruments can all operate at the same time without electromagnetic interference.””

i.e. The instruments will be the most shielded and hardened yet to electromagnetic interference, excluding the solar probes.

“Missions such as Europa Clipper help contribute to the field of astrobiology, the interdisciplinary research on the variables and conditions of distant worlds that could harbor life as we know it. While Europa Clipper is not a life-detection mission, it will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Europa and investigate whether the icy moon, with its subsurface ocean, has the capability to support life. Understanding Europa’s habitability will help scientists better understand how life developed on Earth and the potential for finding life beyond our planet.”

i.e. If the mission proves successful there will be many productive papers and stimulation for future researchers. In addition, a presently distant dream, of an alien life detection mission, will be that much closer to fruition depending on what is discovered.