Most of what scientists know of Jupiter’s moon Europa they have gleaned from a dozen or so close flybys from NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1979 and NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the mid-to-late 1990s. In these fleeting, paparazzi-like encounters, scientists have seen a fractured, ice-covered world with tantalizing signs of a liquid water ocean under its surface. Such an environment could be a hospitable home for microbial life. But what if we got to land on Europa’s surface and conduct something along the lines of a more in-depth interview? What would scientists ask?
A new study in the journal Astrobiology authored by a NASA-appointed science definition team lays out their consensus on the most important questions to address.
“If one day humans send a robotic lander to the surface of Europa, we need to know what to look for and what tools it should carry,” said Robert Pappalardo, the study’s lead author, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa, but studies like these will help us focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations. Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life.”
Above is an artist’s conception of a view from the surface of Europa, with Jupiter looming large in the background.