Europe, the satellite of Jupiter, for which NASA plans to launch a spacecraft for a flight, may actually be habitable.
While NASA is preparing to launch a spacecraft Europe in the mid-2020s, during which it will have to travel around the ice-covered satellite several dozen times, the space agency is considering sending a small probe that will take samples from surface of a celestial body.
“We are constructing a descent vehicle,” said Robert Pappalardo, a scientist from NASA’s Europe Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) project in Pasadena, California, USA, last week during a discussion at the SPACE 2015 space conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and astronautics held in pasadena.
“NASA asked us to consider the following questions:“ Will we be able to send a small probe to Europe? What needs to be done for this? How much will it cost? ”Added Pappalardo.
According to information published in April on the Spaceflight Now website, NASA also appealed to the European Space Agency to provide support to take samples of soil and ice using a cryobot, penetrator or any other device that will be delivered during a flight to Europe worth 2 billion . dollars. The diameter of Europe is 3100 km, it is covered with an ice shell with an estimated thickness of 80 km, under which, according to scientists, there is a huge ocean of liquid water approximately 20 km deep.
As Kevin Hand, deputy head of the JPL solar intelligence systems department, said at SPACE 2015, “At least five other moons in the solar system — Jupiter’s satellites Ganymede and Callisto, Saturn’s satellites Enceladus and Titan and Neptune’s Triton’s — similar oceans hidden from the eyes. ”
“But only the oceans of Enceladus and Europe appear to be in contact with a solid mantle, on the border with which various chemical reactions are likely to occur, interesting from the point of view of science,” he added. “The oceans of other moons are supposedly sandwiched between layers of ice.”
Therefore, Europe and Enceladus are space objects that first of all want to study astrobiology. Hand, however, prefers the Jupiter satellite.
As the scientist explains, researchers are aware of Europe enough to assume that its ocean has existed for 4, 5 billion years, it is almost the same age as of the Solar System, and it has been a long time to could form and develop life forms. About the age of the ocean of Enceladus, whose diameter is 500 km, almost nothing is known, and it is very difficult to make any assumptions about whether there is life on this satellite. “If we talk about possible habitability, we would like to get more knowledge about the environment in which life could exist, since it takes a long time to form,” said Hand.
But the idea of a possible launch of a spacecraft for a flight to Enceladus is of great interest, especially because the powerful geysers of the moon Saturn allow samples of ocean water to be taken without dropping onto its surface. In fact, NASA is considering organizing a flight called Enceladus Life Finder (ELF).
While ELF remains only in the project, competing with about two dozen other proposals for the right to become the next NASA research program, the flight to Europe is already planned by the space agency.
An expedition to the satellite of Jupiter, which has no name yet, can begin as early as 2022. After reaching the orbit of Jupiter, the robotic probe flies around Europe for about two and a half years 45 times.
During these flights, the spacecraft will study Europe with the help of nine different scientific instruments, including high-resolution cameras, a thermal imager and a radar to measure ice thickness. Observations made during the expedition should give scientists a lot of information about the composition of the moon's surface, the nature of its ocean hidden under a layer of ice and its ability to support life, a NASA official said. (The search for signs of life is not included in the plans of the expedition). The flight also has to perform a reconnaissance mission. NASA has expressed interest in sending a special landing module to the ice-covered moon, perhaps one attempt will be made to penetrate the ice shell of Europe, but the agency is not yet ready to do so.
“We don’t know how the surface of Europe actually looks, whether it is smooth, very uneven or rocky, and whether the device will be able to descend on it,” said Kurt Niebuhr, a scientist from the European study program in June at a press conference devoted to scientific review of the expedition held at NASA's Washington headquarters. ““ Without having a clue about the terrain, it’s very difficult to design a landing gear that can withstand the landing. ”
But the absence of this information will cause less concern if the descent vehicle becomes part of the planned expedition and much less money is spent on its financing than when organizing a separate expedition.
These are the arguments that NASA makes. In the near future, it will become known more about whether the descent vehicle will take place on an expedition to Europe.
“By the end of this year, we will clarify this information,” said Pappalardo at the SPACE 2015 space conference.