Source: NASA/JPL
Published: June 17, 2015

Could a liquid water ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa have the ingredients to support life? Here's how NASA's mission to Europa would find out.



Europa is the most likely place to find life in our solar system today because we think there's a liquid water ocean beneath its surface and we know on Earth everywhere that there's water we find life. So could Europa have the ingredients to support life?

We might be actually looking at a body that is presently alive, presently active and presently undergoing its geology. There is too much evidence right now lying around on the surface, the red stuff, that suggests that something's going on there.

Is that an environment that is habitable for any sort of life form? By golly, we really have got to go back and figure that out.


We have designed a Europa mission to take a spacecraft and a set of instruments all the way from planet Earth to Jupiter.

Previous mission concepts were for a spacecraft that would orbit Europa. But Europa is bathed in radiation from Jupiter. Any mission that goes in the vicinity of Europa is cooked pretty quickly.

Instead, we're looking at a mission that would orbit Jupiter, make close flybys of Europa and then zip out of the high radiation region.

Kind of like, when I was a kid we had the sprinklers and we didn't want to be too close to the sprinkler head so we would run in and get a little water and then run back out again.

This allows for us to have a mission that's many years long and to collect and transmit lots and lots of data.

As Europa orbits Jupiter, it flexes and we could measure the gravitational change of Europa by encountering Europa at different points in its orbit.

On a typical flyby, we would turn on our remote sensing instruments. We would image the surface. We would interrogate the surface with spectroscopy and we would do the same thing on the way out.,

And we would essentially rinse and repeat and do this many, many, times until we understand Europa globally.

Images from the Hubble Space Telescope, tells us that Europa might be erupting plumes of water high into space.

If that's true, then we could fly through those plumes with a spacecraft and literally taste it to understand the composition of Europa's interior.

If it does have the ability to harbor life, how does that work exactly? We'll have enough instrumentation to really pinpoint exactly how the mechanisms would work for replenishing the nutrients in a subsurface ocean.

Europa is so important because we want to understand - Are we alone in the cosmos. If there is life in Europa, it almost certainly was completely independent from the origin of life on Earth.

That would mean the origin of life must be pretty easy throughout the galaxy and beyond.