Could there be fossils on the surface of Europa, Jupiter’s storied moon that Arthur C. Clarke harshly warned Sapiens not to attempt a landing on? NASA is building an antenna that will take that long journey aboard its Europa Clipper, a spacecraft that will conduct detailed reconnaissance to see whether the icy orb could harbor conditions suitable for life. Scientists believe there’s a massive salty ocean beneath Europa’s icy surface that reaches 100 kilometers below the base of the ice –a depth 10 times greater than the Marianas Trench.
One of the most interesting mysteries about Europa is happening at the boundary of the rocky core and the ocean. The answer has profound effects on the type of world that Europa ultimately is. The Clipper’s antenna will beam back high-resolution images and scientific data from Europa Clipper’s cameras and science instruments and perhaps a profound answer.
The rocky bottom of Europa’s vast ocean, suggests Caltech’s Mike Brown, may be almost like a miniature Earth, with plate tectonics, continents, deep trenches, and active spreading centers. “Think about mid-ocean ridges on Earth,’ Brown writes on his blog, “with their black smokers belching scalding nutrient-rich waters into a sea floor teaming with life that is surviving on these chemicals. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture the same sort of rich chemical soup in Europa’s ocean leading to the evolution of some sort of life, living off of the internal energy generated inside of Europa’s core. If you’re looking for Europa’s whales – which many of my friends and I often joke that we are – this is the world you want to look for them on.”
Back to the future: NASA’s full-scale prototype antenna, which at 10 feet (3 meters) tall is the same height as a standard basketball hoop, is in the Experimental Test Range (ETR) at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and Langley are testing the prototype in the ETR in order to assess its performance and demonstrate the high pointing accuracies required for the Europa Clipper mission.
The ETR is an indoor electromagnetic test facility that allows researchers to characterize transmitters, receivers, antennas and other electromagnetic components and subsystems in a scientifically controlled environment.
“Several years ago we scoured the country to find a facility that was capable of making the difficult measurements that would be required on the HGA and found that the ETR clearly was it,” said Thomas Magner, assistant project manager for Europa Clipper at the Applied Physics Laboratory. “The measurements that will be performed in the ETR will demonstrate that the Europa Clipper mission can get a large volume of scientific data back to Earth and ultimately determine the habitability of Europa.”
Tests on this prototype antenna are scheduled to wrap up soon; however, researchers plan to return to the ETR in 2020 to conduct additional tests on Europa Clipper’s high-gain antenna flight article. Europa Clipper plans to launch in the 2020s, with travel time to Jupiter taking three to seven years (depending on the launch vehicle and which planetary alignments can be utilized).
JPL manages the Europa Clipper mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The multiple-flyby concept was developed in partnership with the Applied Physics Laboratory.
The Daily Galaxy, Max Goldberg, via JPL
Image credits: NASA and Hubble Space Telescope