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Instruments selected for NASA mission to Jupiter moon

Posted May 27, 2015

Bizarre features on Europa’s icy surface suggest a warm interior.

— NASA/JPL announced on Tuesday the selection of nine science instruments for an upcoming mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. While this might appear as a run-of-the-mill NASA press conference, we may look back on this day as the beginning of a very big scientific milestone.

Europa is about a quarter of the size of Earth, but studies by the Galileo mission between 1995 and 2003 revealed that beneath its icy surface, there’s strong evidence of a global ocean with twice as much water as Earth’s. If the salt water, rocky sea floor, and chemistry provided by tidal heating are found to work the way scientists think, Europa may be the best place beyond Earth to look for life.

This isn’t just a search for past environments conducive to life, such as the Mars rover Curiosity quickly found on the Red Planet. Scientists think that Europa may harbor our first discovery of present day life beyond our home planet.

“This is a giant step in our search for oases that could support life in our own celestial backyard,” said Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C.

The yet-to-be-named mission to Europa is planned for launch sometime in the mid-2020s. After a journey that could take 8 years, it will spend 3 years making long swooping passes over Europa and Jupiter. The nine instruments selected for the mission are:

  • Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) 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) 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) 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) 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) is a 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) is a “heat detector” that 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) 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) adopts 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) 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.

These instruments are from the principal investigators and their teams at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., The University of Texas, Arizona State University and The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“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," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington D.C.. “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.”

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