NASA has unveiled an array of nine instrument packages that are to be included on an upcoming space probe that will be sent to Jupiter’s moon Europa, of which will include sensors that will look for evidence of life.
Europa is considered to be a good candidate for harboring life, with what scientists believe to be a liquid, salty ocean over a rocky surface, and hydrothermal vents that could provide heat and nutrients for potential organisms. Conditions similar to these are also found on Earth, and teem with life.
Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, is optimistic: "After five billion years with conditions like that, it could be a very habitable place. We believe the environment is just perfect for the potential development of life."
While the probe will carry spectrometers and chemical sensors that will determine what elements are present on Europa, including those that would make up organic molecules, Europa program scientist Curt Niebur cautions that the probe won’t be carrying any direct "life-detectors", and admits that they wouldn’t know specifically what to look for that would outright indicate life as we know it.
"If we do find life or indications of life that will be an enormous step forward in our understanding of our place in the universe," Niebur says. "If there’s life in the solar system and in Europa in particular, it must be everywhere in our galaxy and perhaps even in the universe."
In addition to the probe’s infrared and mass spectrometers, it will also carry a chemical sensors package; a magnetometer and ice penetrating radar, to test for potential liquid water, it’s salinity, and the thickness of the ice; a high-resolution imaging system; and heat-detection systems, amongst other instruments. The mission is expected to launch in the 2020’s, of which will take a year to transit to Europa, then will spend three years in orbit around the icy moon in orbits expected to provide 45 close fly-bys, as it collects data.