“What Lies Beneath?” New NASA Technology Will Search Surface of Europa’s Hidden Ocean for Signs of Life






NASA’s next flagship mission will explore whether Jupiter’s moon Europa could harbor conditions suitable for life. Previous missions have provided compelling evidence for such conditions on Europa: The moon most likely harbors a global ocean underneath its icy crust; the conditions within the ocean are acceptable for extant terrestrial life; and the chemical inventory of the ocean provides the range of elements essential for Earth-like organisms.

The mission will place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter to perform closes flybys of Europa. NASA has selected nine instruments for this mission, including cameras and spectrometers, an ice-penetrating radar, a thermal instrument, a magnetometer, and in-situ mass spectrometers. LASP will provide the Surface Dust Analyzer (SUDA), an instrument to investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s surface, which may hold the fundamental clues for understanding its potential to develop and sustain life, because materials embedded in the ice matrix on Europa’s surface carry a treasure trove of information about the moon’s interior.

The SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA), which has been under development for about 10 years, will be used to measure the composition of solid particles released from Europa’s surface due to meteoroid bombardment. The instrument also will be able to measure the properties of small, solid particles believed to be spewing from the hidden ocean within the moon.

“This instrument will be used to support the overarching goal of the Europa mission, which is to understand the prerequisites of life in the solar system," said Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, principal investigator on the project.

There is evidence from both NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter and from Hubble Space Telescope images that plumes of water and ice particles are shooting out from Europa’s surface, according to NASA officials.

Europa is one of four large Jovian moons and is about the size of Earth’s moon. Scientists believe there is a frozen crust about 40 miles (70 kilometers) thick separating the ocean from the surface, said Kempf. The ocean, which may be heated by Europa’s interior, could harbor more than twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, according to NASA officials.

NASA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request includes $30 million to formulate a mission to Europa. The solar-powered spacecraft would be placed in a long, looping orbit around the gas giant Jupiter – the largest planet in the solar system – performing repeated flybys of Europa as close as 16 miles (25 kilometers) over a three-year period.

“There appears to be an exchange of material occurring between Europa’s surface and its subsurface ocean,” said Kempf. “We are building a very powerful instrument that will provide us with information about the moon’s interior structure and the repository of material in the water under the ice crust.”




In March, a CU-Boulder-led study involving Kempf used data from NASA’s Cassini mission indicating microscopic grains of rock detected near Saturn may be due to hydrothermal activity taking place within its moon, Enceladus.

About the size of a lunchbox, the LASP instrument for Europa will weigh about 24 pounds, much of it for special high-tech shielding to protect it from the harsh radiation environment of Jupiter. LASP also has a dust instrument on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto called the Student Dust Counter built entirely by students. Launched in 2006, New Horizons will make its closest flyby of the dwarf planet on July 14.

Other U.S partners on the SUDA project include Arizona State University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. In addition, there are several European partners including the University of Stuttgart in Germany, the University of Oulu in Finland and the National Center for Scientific Research in France.

The Daily Galaxy via University of Colorado

Image credit: With thanks to  The Europa Report

"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily