NASA Greenlights Europa Flybys

Europa Clipper Antenna


“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God – but to create him, wrote Arthur C Clarke, author of 2001 A Space Odyssey. Clarke also famously warned against a mission to explore the most intriguing of Jupiter’s 79 moons, which has now been given the green light to proceed to the final stages of development of NASA’s Europa Clipper Mission.

On March 9, 2018, The Daily Galaxy quoted Michael Russell at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory: “If we were to find life on Europa, then that would strongly support the submarine alkaline vent theory,” which suggests that life on Earth originated near underwater alkaline hydrothermals.

Astrobiologist Russell and his colleagues suggested that where an icy crust and a hidden ocean meet in a frozen world such as Europa, these two sources of the building blocks of life could join together and potentially support the evolution of life. At the underside of Europa’s icy crust, they suggest a shallow biosphere – a network of ecosystems – can form. “All the ingredients and free energy required for life are all focused in one place.”

The NASA mission, named Europa Clipper, will make a number of close flybys – it cannot orbit the moon as Jupiter’s radiation belt would fry its electronics – carrying cameras and instruments to measure the moon’s magnetic field.

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The mission will look for subsurface lakes and provide data on the thickness of the moon’s icy crust. The team also hope to confirm the presence of plumes of water, previously detected by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft and the Hubble space telescope. If confirmed, it would mean scientists would not need to find a way of hacking through the moon’s icy crust to explore the makeup of the ocean.

The go-ahead for the final design to be made for the 2025 Europa Clipper mission spacecraft to be built and the instruments to be developed and tested. The mission 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.


NASA Europa Image


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. NASA is building an antenna that will take that long journey aboard to beam back high-resolution images and scientific data from Europa Clipper’s cameras and science instruments and perhaps a profound answer.

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.

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“We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, an associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at Nasa’s headquarters in Washington.

“Several years ago we scoured the country to find a facility that was capable of making the difficult measurements that would be required 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.”

A fascinating picture of Europa’s vast ocean, has been drawn by Caltech’s Mike Brown, who suggests that the storied moon 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.”

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Clipper is expected to launch in 2025, although it could be ready a couple of years sooner. It is not the only mission heading for Europa: the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or Juice, is expected to launch in 2022 and will undertake flybys of three of Jupiter’s moons, including Europa.

The Daily Galaxy, Max Goldberg, via NASA and JPL

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