Landing on an ocean moon: NASA unveils new plan to search for life on Europa

Artist’s conception of the proposed Europa lander, with sampling arm extended. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For decades now, Europa has beckoned – this moon of Jupiter which is frozen on the outside but hides a global ocean on the inside – has so far only been visited by spacecraft during brief flybys. Scientists and the public alike have been wanting to return to this fascinating little world since it offers the possibility of maybe, just maybe, being home to some kind of life. Plans have been inching forward for a new mission to conduct multiple, closer flybys of Europa, to learn more about the ocean just below the ice, but what about actually landing? A lander would be a more difficult prospect since Europa doesn’t have an atmosphere, but is certainly doable. Now, NASA has received a formal science report on how best to conduct such a mission. This is a significant step toward finally being able have the view of looking up at Jupiter hanging in the inky black Europan sky – a dream of many for a long time.

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More evidence from Curiosity rover for ancient habitability and widespread organics on Mars

View of the path ahead for the Curiosity rover, looking toward the foothills of Mount Sharp. The various sedimentary layers on the mountain are a geological record of different environmental conditions in the past. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
View of the path ahead for the Curiosity rover, looking toward the foothills of Mount Sharp. The various sedimentary layers on the mountain are a geological record of different environmental conditions in the past. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA held another press briefing this week about the latest findings from the Curiosity rover on Mars, detailing new evidence that this former lake environment was once quite hospitable for possible life. The findings were announced from the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In a related development, there is also new evidence from Curiosity that organics have not only been definitively found by the rover, but that they may be more widespread on Mars than previously thought.

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Geysers on Europa? Hubble Space Telescope finds more evidence for water vapour plumes

Composite image showing the possible water vapor plumes near the south pole of Europa, at about the 7 o’clock position. The image of Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions, is superimposed on the Hubble data. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center
Composite image showing the possible water vapour plumes near the south pole of Europa, at about the 7 o’clock position. The image of Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions, is superimposed on the Hubble data. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Intriguing new findings about Jupiter’s moon Europa were announced today by NASA, and while they don’t involve any direct evidence for life, they do provide more information on how scientists could better search for such evidence, without having to drill through the icy crust to the ocean below. The new observations, by the Hubble Space Telescope, have added to the evidence for active water vapour plumes on Europa – an exciting possibility, since they would possibly originate from the subsurface ocean, similar to the plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And just like the Cassini spacecraft has already done at Enceladus, those plumes – geysers really – could be sampled directly by a future spacecraft such as Europa Clipper.

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NASA’s Europa mission facing possible budget cuts in 2017

Artist’s conception of the Europa Clipper spacecraft near Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Europa Clipper spacecraft near Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For a long time now, there has been growing interest in sending a mission back to Jupiter to better study one moon in particular: Europa. Previous missions such as Voyager and Galileo showed us this world up close for the first time, revealing a place that maybe, just maybe, is home to some kind of life. On the outside, Europa is cold and frozen, like an airless version of Antarctica, with its surface completely composed of ice. But deeper down, as those probes found, there is a global ocean of water deeper than any oceans on Earth. In more recent years and months, a new NASA mission to Europa has finally started to take shape, with a launch tentatively scheduled for 2022. As often happens, however, the mission is facing possible budget cuts in 2017.

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Pale Red Dot: Astronomers discover potentially habitable exoplanet orbiting nearest star

Artist’s conception of what Proxima b might look like. It is just slightly more massive than Earth and orbits in its star’s habitable zone. Temperatures might allow liquid water to exist on its surface. A potentially habitable world, it is also now the closest known exoplanet. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s conception of what Proxima b might look like. It is just slightly more massive than Earth and orbits in its star’s habitable zone. Temperatures might allow liquid water to exist on its surface. A potentially habitable world, it is also now the closest known exoplanet. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers today announced one of the most exciting exoplanet discoveries yet: an Earth-mass rocky world orbiting the nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri. There had been hints before of such a world, but nothing was confirmed, until now. The planet, called Proxima b, is not only just slightly more massive than Earth, it orbits within the star’s “habitable zone.” The estimated temperatures of the planet could allow liquid water to exist on its surface. Not only is this planet potentially habitable, depending on other factors, it is also now the closest known exoplanet.

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Viking remembered: Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first search for life on Mars

Iconic painting of a Viking lander on Mars, prior to launch. The sampling arm reaches into the foreground. Image Credit: Charles Bennett/Lockheed Martin (Martin Marietta)
Iconic painting of a Viking lander on Mars, prior to launch. The sampling arm reaches into the foreground. Image Credit: Charles Bennett/Lockheed Martin (Martin Marietta)

July 20, 1976, will be forever remembered by space enthusiasts. On that day, Viking 1 became the first U.S. spacecraft to land on another planet – in this case, Mars (the USSR Venera 9 spacecraft landed on Venus in 1975). That lander, and Viking 2 which followed it Sept. 3, 1976, paved the way for more complex missions later on, which would begin to finally unlock some of the secrets of the mysterious Red Planet. The two Viking landers, and their counterpart orbiters, were genuine trailblazers, opening up the vast Martian landscape to robotic and human eyes for the first time.

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Evidence from Curiosity rover shows Mars once had oxygen-rich atmosphere

Mars’ atmosphere is thin, dry, and cold now, but it used to be thicker and contained a lot more oxygen. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Mars’ atmosphere is thin, dry and cold now, but it used to be thicker and contained a lot more oxygen. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Mars’ atmosphere is thin and cold, composed primarily of carbon dioxide along with other trace gases and some water vapour. Evidence has continued to mount, however, that the rarified atmosphere we see today once used to be much thicker and possibly warmer, making it potentially more life-friendly early on. Just how thick and how warm is still a subject of much debate, but there is also another interesting aspect to all of this: New evidence from the Curiosity rover has shown that the Martian atmosphere also used to have a lot more oxygen in it than it does now. Today, only very small traces of oxygen can be found, as opposed to Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. So what does this mean? Could there be biological implications?

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NASA’s FY2017 budget request may delay SLS Europa mission several years

We are finally going back to Europa, but it may be a little later than originally planned. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
We are finally going back to Europa, but it may be a little later than originally planned. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

The recently announced new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a highly anticipated return to this ocean world, may face a launch delay from 2022 to the late 2020s. The news comes amid the release yesterday of NASA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, which provides substantially less funding than Congress had mandated last year.

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‘Cauliflower’ silica formations on Mars: evidence of ancient life?

Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Was there ever life on Mars? That is one of the longest-running and most debated questions in planetary science, and while there have been tantalizing clues, solid evidence has been elusive. Now there is a new piece to add to the puzzle, which may be one of the most interesting yet. As first reported on Smithsonian.com, odd formations composed of silica seen by the Spirit rover, nicknamed “cauliflower” for their shapes, may have been produced by microbes, new research suggests. They are very similar to some silica formations on Earth which are found in hydrothermal environments and are known to have formed with the help of microscopic organisms.

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New 2016 NASA budget fully funds Europa mission, including lander

A view many have been waiting for – artist’s concept of the surface of Europa. The new NASA budget brings this closer to reality, with funding for not only a flyby probe, but also a lander. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A view many have been waiting for – artist’s concept of the surface of Europa. The new NASA budget brings this closer to reality, with funding for not only a flyby probe, but also a lander. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This was an exciting and very important week for NASA and planetary exploration: the new NASA budget from Congress is better than expected and, in the words of The Planetary Society, “extraordinary.” There is a healthy increase for planetary science, and one new mission in particular which a lot of people have been waiting for: a new mission to Europa. Not only is it now fully funded, the Congressional plan goes further than the initial mission concept in calling for not just multiple flybys, but also a lander.

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