NASA is giving SpaceX $178 million to help launch a mission to Europa, a moon of ice with the potential for life, the space agency announced Friday.
The main goal of the mission, called Europa Clipper, is to determine if Jupiter’s icy moon has conditions suitable for life. The project, “Earth’s first mission to conduct detailed investigations of Jupiter’s moon Europa,” will launch October 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, according to a Friday statement from NASA.
The mission aims to produce high-resolution images of Europa’s surface, determine its composition, study ongoing geological activity, measure the thickness of the moon’s icy shell, search for subsurface lakes, and measure the the depth and salinity of its ocean, the statement said.
“Scientists are almost certain a vast ocean lies beneath Europa’s icy shell,” NASA said.
Europa Clipper will try to confirm the presence of this ocean, which may contain elements needed to sustain life.
One of four sibling satellites discovered by famed astronomer Galileo, Europa has a surface composition of mostly ice, according to ground-based telescope observations in the 1960s.
Data suggests that a salty ocean beneath Europa’s crust contains more water than Earth’s oceans, according to NASA. Researchers also predict a rocky seafloor may lie at the bottom of the ocean, causing interactions that could create chemical nutrients for living organisms.
NASA’s Galileo mission, which launched in 1989, offers some of the “best evidence” of an ocean on Europa, NASA said. The Galileo spacecraft detected a magnetic field that scientists believe could be created by “a global ocean of salty water.”
Images from Galileo and other spacecrafts also show the moon doesn’t have many craters, which scientists think may be the result of “geologic activity, like warmer ice rising from below, … erasing the craters over time.”
Scientists also believe essential chemical ingredients for life such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur were likely present on Europa when it formed.
NASA scientists predict living organisms on Europa would probably get energy through chemical reactions rather than photosynthesis. While radiation from Jupiter means life likely couldn’t survive on the moon’s surface, it may help fuel life in a subsurface ocean by prying apart water molecules and leaving “very reactive” oxygen to be used in chemical reactions that release energy for organisms to use.
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