NASA has started its mission to discover if Jupiter’s icy moon Europa could potentially harbour an ocean teeming with alien life.
The agency has selected nine science instruments for the trip, which is a follow-up to the Galileo mission that yielded strong evidence that Europa is harbouring an ocean beneath a frozen crust of unknown thickness.
Europa is around the same size as Earth’s moon and if it is concealing an icy sea under its crust, the body could have more than twice as much water as Earth. With abundant salt water, a rocky sea floor and the energy and chemistry from tidal heating, Europa could turn out to be the best place in the Solar System to look for alien life.
“Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.
“We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.”
President Barack Obama and NASA announced the mission to Europa as a priority back in February, because it’s seen by many astrobiologists as the best place to look for life beyond Earth. The agency’s fiscal year 2016 budget included a request for $30m to develop a new spacecraft visit to the icy moon.