Today, it was unveiled that NASA will be undertaking a mission to a distant moon, Europa, where they believe they may well find a form of life. Hidden under an icy crust, getting to the ocean world is the easy part, so HEKKTA takes a closer look at the design behind the mission, and what it all means for us.
So what is Europa?
Europa is a moon circulating around Jupiter, and it’s in a very close orbit too. So close that the gravitational forces that keep it in orbit, essentially heat up the moon, allowing it to harbour a 170km deep body of water under it’s icy shell.
Scientists also believe the moon may well contain seabed volcanic vents, very similar to the ones that begun life on Earth.
“We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“We are building upon the scientific insights received from the flagship Galileo and Cassini spacecraft and working to advance our understanding of our cosmic origin, and even life elsewhere.”
Space exploration is a long and perilous process. Billions of pounds of the line, working within the smallest of margins. Ridiculous speeds, ridiculous distances and unbelievable heat levels and radiation. And studying Europa will be different.
The reason Europa throws up so many issues for the engineers designing the craft is that as you get closer to Jupiter, you become more exposed to the intense radiation of the giant planet. This essentially cooks the electronics within the craft, rendering it fairly useless at it’s job.
So to have the craft orbit Europa won’t work. Instead, they will send the little craft, Clipper, on quick fly-bys close to the moon, and try to obtain as much information as they can while in proximity with it.
However, the process to decide to embark on a mission of any sorts is an incredibly arduous process, and this particular decision took decades of research, asking if it is possible at all.
After the green light was given, the process moves to the next phase; the completion of the final design of the craft.
You might be asking the very valid question of how can one conduct any real research on a moon, when flying by it at ridiculous speeds?
Well, the craft will be equipped with several cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images of the moon’s surface, and to gauge the depth of the water and ice, a magnometer is used which essentially measures the strength and direction of Europa’s magnetic field. The readings collected can send back clues to Earth on the depth and salinity of the ocean beneath the moon’s crust.
Europa could well hold the key of the billion dollar question. It is a question that most people assumed we would never know the answer to, unless a legion of aliens descended upon Earth in their flying saucers demanded the human race stop screwing up the plant.
But, we have reached a time where improvements and innovations in engineering and design have become so advanced that the seemingly unanswerable questions are finding their answers.
Who knows, by 2025, we could well discover if there is life beyond our own.