NASA Selects Science Instruments for Europa Mission

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In a move that may be heralded as the first step toward discovering life beyond Earth, NASA has selected nine science instruments for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The mission: to investigate whether the mysterious icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.

The significance of this mission is difficult to overstate. In 2012, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope observed water vapor above the south polar region of Europa. The observation provided the first strong evidence of water plumes. If these plumes are confirmed, and they are linked to a subsurface ocean, the discovery will help scientists investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment.

According to John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington:

Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon…. We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.

According to a statement by the American space agency:

NASA’s Galileo mission yielded strong evidence that Europa, about the size of Earth’s moon, has an ocean beneath a frozen crust of unknown thickness. If proven to exist, this global ocean could have more than twice as much water as Earth. With abundant salt water, a rocky sea floor, and the energy and chemistry provided by tidal heating, Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present day life beyond our home planet.

The instruments NASA will send to Europa include cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images of the moon’s surface, an ice penetrating radar that will determine the thickness of the moon’s icy shell and search for subsurface lakes similar to those beneath Antarctica, and a magnetometer to measure the strength and direction of the moon’s magnetic field. The latter will allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean.

Additionally, a thermal instrument will “scour Europa’s frozen surface in search of recent eruptions of warmer water, while additional instruments will search for evidence of water and tiny particles in the moon’s thin atmosphere.”

Artist rendering of future NASA mission to Europa

This artist’s rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Europa program scientist Curt Niebur characterized the instrument selection as “[A] giant step in our search for oases that could support life in our own celestial backyard.”

Here is the list of instruments selected by NASA:

Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS)
This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.

Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG)
This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and (in conjunction with the PIMS instrument) infer the location, thickness, and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.

Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE)
This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.

Europa Imaging System (EIS)
The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.

Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON)
This dual-frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.

Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS)
This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.

MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX)
This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.

Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS)
This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.

SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA)
This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.

For more information about Europa, visit http://go.nasa.gov/europanews.

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