Written byGarret FitzpatrickSource astrobio.net
March 1, 2013
Searching for Life Where the Sun Don’t Shine, Part 6
This is the final part of a series telling the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life and potential for life on other worlds by studying organisms that survive deep below Earth’s oceans around hydrothermal vents. This installment discusses the possibility of future NASA missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which could harbor an ocean of water beneath its icy surface.
Astrobiologists like Steve Vance and Richard Greenberg talk about the motivations behind visiting Europa and the options we have for missions, including orbiters, flybys and landers. Each type of mission to Europa would have different challenges to face and different scientific returns to offer astrobiologists back home on Earth.
Other space agencies around the world have also discussed the benefits of exploring Europa. The European Space Agency is now planning to launch the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) in 2022. JUICE will focus on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, but will also perform two flybys of Europa.
For now, astrobiologists continue to explore deep sea environments on Earth in order to understand how life on Europa might survive without access to sunlight. Scientists are also breaking through the ice of Antarctica to sample subglacial lakes that support ecosystems of their own. The samples data they have collected is now making astrobiologists more and more curious about Europa, and anxious to see what the moon’s ice shell could be hiding.