Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Credit: NASA

One model of Europa’s ice. Some scientists think fresh seawater regularly cycles up to the surface of the moon through cracks, making exploration of the ocean more accessible to future landers. Credit: K. Kalousová

A possible scenario for life on Europa. Credit: Richard Greenberg

An artist impression of the The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer. Credits: ESA/AOES

Artist’s depiction of the recently shelved Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO) concept. Credit: NASA/ESA

Artist’s depiction of a cryobot & hydrobot which could one day explore Europa’s oceans. Credit: NASA

Searching for Life Where the Sun Don’t Shine (part 6) Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa

Posted: 02/14/13
Author: Garret Fitzpatrick
Summary: The thought that alien fishes, sharks and squids could be chasing each other in the pitch black waters of Jupiter’s moon Europa has astrobiologists like Steve Vance itching to get a good look below the ice.

This is the final part of a series that tells the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life by looking for it in extreme environments where life thrives, without relying on the Sun as an energy source. This series follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. By understanding how life can live without the Sun we may discover how life began on our planet, and whether or not Earth is the only place in the universe capable of supporting a biosphere.

Steve Vance is still in the middle of planning discussions at JPL for a potential Europa mission that could launch as early as 2020. In early 2012, the team he’s on finished developing three different mission designs with three different vehicles—an orbiter, a flyby (like Voyager and Galileo) or a lander mission—that they’d pitched in a report to NASA agency brass the previous May. At the time, the lander mission was determined to be too expensive and risky. Today, the agency is currently considering another flyby mission as the leading candidate to be Earth’s next ambassador to Europa.

Collecting samples on Europa and sending them back to Earth for laboratory analysis — like German’s team does on Atlantis — is probably many decades away from becoming a reality. Vance says a lander could collect samples, but it would be confined to collecting and analyzing only what it could reach at its landing spot. An orbiter or flyby mission, on the other hand, might be able to bounce radar waves off the icy surface to send back data about the moon’s mysterious ocean.

“If we had a mission with radar on it, you can construct a radar observation that could possibly see through more than ten kilometers of ice. Depending on how pure the ice is, radar propagates pretty well through ice,” says Vance. “There’s a possibility if (Europa has) a thin ice shell, you could see all the way to the ocean. At least to the extent that you could say, ‘here’s an ocean layer.’ You couldn’t see a whale…” Vance paused for a second, then clarified. “Not that we’re expecting to see a whale, per se.”

Read more: Searching for Life Where the Sun Don’t Shine (part 6) Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa — Astrobiology Magazine.

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