Mission Overview

The proposed Europa Clipper mission would place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of the giant planet’s moon Europa. Europa shows strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust and some astrobiologists believe that it could host conditions favourable for life. The mission would send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa.

NASA has selected nine science instruments for a future mission to Europa. The selected payload includes cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images of Europa’s surface and determine its composition.

The nominal Europa Clipper would perform 45 flybys of Europa at altitudes varying from 1700 miles to 16 miles (2700 kilometres to 25 kilometres) above the surface.

Relevance to Astrobiology

A primary objective of the Europa Clipper mission would be to determine the thickness of the Europa’s icy shell and search for subsurface lakes similar to those beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet. The mission would also measure the strength and direction of the moon’s magnetic field, which would allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean. A thermal instrument would survey Europa’s frozen surface in search of recent eruptions of warmer water at or near the surface, while additional instruments would search for evidence of water and tiny particles in the moon’s thin atmosphere. If water vapor plumes on Europa are confirmed, their composition would help scientists investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment while minimizing the need to drill through layers of ice.

NASA Astrobiology Involvement

The NASA Astrobiology Program supports numerous astrobiologists that are involved in definition of science goals for Europa Clipper the design of scientific instruments for the mission. The Astrobiology Program also funds astrobiologists who would work with the immense amount of data returned by Europa Clipper.

The Astrobiologists
Below is just a selection of astrobiologists directly involved with the Europa Clipper mission.

Science Leadership
Robert Pappalardo, Project Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Pappalardo has been an active researcher with the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). He is currently a member of the NAI team at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Europa Investigation Leads
Donald Blankenship, REASON Principal Investigator, University of Texas, Austin. Former PI for the Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology program element of the NASA Astrobiology Program. Member of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, supported by the NAI.

Science Team
Oleg Abramov, former Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellow and researcher supported by the NAI and the Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology program. Abramov is working on the E-THEMIS instrument team for Europa Clipper.

Steve Vance, Project Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is currently a member of the NAI team at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.