NASA’s Europa Clipper: 15 years in concept; finally gets funding

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NASA’s ambitions of verifying existence of oceans of liquid water beyond Earth may soon get a chance to blast off into space towards Jupiter’s icy moon Europa as the space agency has announced $30 million of initial funding for a probe dubbed Europa Clipper.

The allocation of $30 million towards Europa Clipper was possible after Obama administration allocated a hefty budget for NASA. The news about Europa mission was announced by NASA chief Charles Bolden. “Looking to the future, we’re planning a mission to explore Jupiter’s fascinating moon Europa”, Bolden tweeted.

The mission in its concept stage pegs Europa Clipper as a large spacecraft with two 29-feet solar panels and a main body the size of a school bus. The probe will be similar in scale to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and will be housing its scientific instruments inside heavy radiation shielded vaults to protect them from dangerous particles zipping around Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.

One may ask as to why is NASA giving so much priority to Europa since 15 years? The answer is fascinating for the fact that the space agency believes with a high certainty of confidence that the fourth largest moon of Jupiter holds an ocean of water below its thick ice sheet.

In a video titled Europa: Ocean World NASA astrobiologist Kevin Hand explains why the space agency is so interested in Europa.

“We used to think that in order for a world to be habitable, it had to be just at the right distance from the sun, or whatever your star was,” says Dr. Hand. “Here’s where Europa is a real game changer. It is far, far out from the sun, and yet it’s got this liquid-water ocean.”

The obvious question would then be: How can something so far away from sun hold liquid water?

“Because it’s orbiting Jupiter, and the tidal tug and pull causes Europa to flex up and down, and all that tidal energy turns into mechanical energy, which turns into friction and heat that helps maintain this liquid-water ocean beneath an icy shell”, explains Dr. Hand.

To those of you aware about the basic building blocks of life, the next obvious question would be what about carbon and hydrogen?

The space agency believes that Jupiter’s ‘tug and pull’ on Europa has another important part to play. Beyond its role in maintaining liquid water. Dr. Hand explains that the “tidal energy may also allow that ocean to interact with rocks on Europa’s sea floor and it may even give rise to things like hydrothermal vents, which could help provide not just the building blocks for life, but also the energy for life.”

NASA has been working on Europa Clipper since quite a long time and as a part of its decadal survey listed key objectives for a probe that will be sent to Europa. The objectives are:

  • Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior
  • Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange
  • Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability
  • Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration
  • Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.

One may ask: how much water are we talking about? The answer according to the space agency is surprising. According to some estimates, the ocean could encompass our whole planet and reach 10 times as deep as our oceans. Further it is also believed that Europa holds two to three times as much water as all the liquid water on Earth.

“The question of whether or not life exists beyond earth, the question of whether or not biology works beyond our home planet, is one of humanity’s oldest and yet unanswered questions,” says Hand.

“And for the first time in the history of humanity, we have the tools and technology and capability to potentially answer this question – and we know where to go to find it: Jupiter’s ocean world, Europa.”