Scientists could discover whether life exists outside of planet Earth within the next 20 years, answering one of the most “fundamental questions” facing humanity, a senior Nasa official has said.
Dr Kevin Hand is one of the leading officials involved in the US space agency’s mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter which has a vast ocean beneath a crust of ice that could potentially harbour extra-terrestrial life.
What he described as a “highly, highly capable scout mission” is due to be launched in 2024 or 2025.
It will be capable of spotting some of the tell-tale signs of life in the hostile environment of Europa's surface.
And, if it did do this, another more sophisticated craft could be sent, which might be able to climb down through cracks in the thick ice crust and the deploy an underwater robot into waters that could be teeming with life.
“For the first time in human history, we can actually build the missions and design the instruments that could go out and answer this fundamental question of whether or not biology works beyond Earth,” Dr Hand told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Boston.
“If we commit to getting these missions done, we could potentially find life in our own solar system’s back yard within the next 20 years.
“Technologically it is entirely possible, but it require public support, excitement about this, so we look to you to help communicate and spread the word.
“One of my fundamental mantras, especially these days, is ‘less destroying, more exploring’ and I hope we can continue to do a lot more exploring.”
The Europa mission would perform multiple passes over the surface of the moon and then deploy a lander that would take various samples in an attempt to assess whether Europa has potential as a place where extra-terrestrial life could exist.
“The point of the mission that we designed was to be the right first mission, not the penultimate mission necessarily,” Dr Hand said.
“If we found signs of life on Europa’s surface, we’re going back, no questions asked.
“And we will send a much more capable spacecraft.”
Nasa unveils space tourism posters
Nasa unveils space tourism posters
1/6 Nasa space tourism posters
Nasa's canny decision to commission sumptuous vintage-inspired posters by Seattle design firm Invisible Creature has firmly placed space travel back where it belongs: in the imagination of travellers
2/6 Nasa space tourism posters
It is particularly fitting that the Nasa commission went to Don and Ryan Clark, who have been running Invisible Creature since 2006, undertaking projects for the likes of Nike and Target
3/6 Nasa space tourism posters
"We were ecstatic, just because our grandfather was an illustrator at Nasa for 30 years," says Clark
4/6 Nasa space tourism posters
The artwork harks back to the Jet Age-era posters commissioned by Howard Hughes' Trans World Airlines and its rival United in the 1950s and 1960s, when the work of David Klein (for TWA) and Stan Galli (for United) glamorised and essentially branded this new age of air travel
5/6 Nasa space tourism posters
It doesn't matter that Nasa has no plans for a "Grand Tour" of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus
6/6 Nasa space tourism posters
If global travel is for daydreamers, going beyond the atmosphere is for true space cadets
To abide by international agreements, the lander would be fitted with a device designed to prevent any bacteria from Earth hitching a ride to Europa, potentially affecting the test results and perhaps even contaminating its own forms of life.
Dr John Rummel, a senior scientist at the Seti Institute in California, said it was important to “protect Europa for the Europans … not the Europeans”.
It would be "pretty easy" for bugs to survive space journeys as long as they were shielded from the sun's ultraviolet radiation, he said.
The most incredible space images of Earth
The most incredible space images of Earth
1/30 Striking Africa
Explore ESA astronaut Tim Peake's stunning photos of Earth, taken from the International Space Station during his six month mission (captions by Tom Peake)
"The striking colour and texture of Africa Illizi, Algeria"
2/30 Favourite Reef
"Every day spent living in space is a great day, but today was particularly special. I got to speak with one of my inspirational heroes Prof Stephen Hawking and his amazing daughter Lucy, who developed the Principia Space Diary to engage children with STEM subjects. As well as talking about dark matter, quantum entanglement, alien life and light beam powered nanocraft we also got to see an amazing pass over the Bahamas and this - my favourite reef smile emoticon"
3/30 Russia's north-east coast
"Sunrise approaching Russia's frozen north-east coast"
4/30 Hello London
"Hello London! Fancy a run? :) #LondonMarathon"
"50 shades of blue: Bahamas"
"Snow on the mountains next to Yinchuan in China"
7/30 Rocket flames in Africa
"Is it just me or do I see some rocket flames down there? These strange land features are in the Erg Iguidi desert, with its yellow stripes of sand stretching from Algeria to northern Mauritania in the Sahara"
8/30 Stunning colours
"Sunlight reflecting the stunning colours of this Himalayan lake"
9/30 The real Everest
"The real thing: found Everest! Last picture turned out to be third-tallest mountain Kanchengjunga"
10/30 Go Exomars
"Go #Exomars – have a great mission. Earth has more in common with Mars than you might think… #AfricaArt"
"Amazingly clear view of Tenerife"
12/30 Midday winter sun
"Some midday winter sun glinting off Greenland’s snow-capped peaks"
13/30 Sand dunes
"Great texture in these huge sand dunes, Saudi Arabia"
14/30 Dragon Dam
"The dam makes this river look like a dragon’s tail. Oahe Dam north of Pierre, South Dakota in the United States. (North is to the right)"
15/30 Smoking volcano
"Spotted volcano smoking away on Russia’s far east coast this morning – heat has melted snow around top"
16/30 New Zealand
"New Zealand looking stunning in the sunshine. Mt Cook centre left with the Grand Plateau to the front and Mt Tasman (3,497m) to the right of the Grand Plateau. Fox Glacier in the middle then Franz Josef curving right. Tasman Lake (largest at front) is at the foot of the Tasman glacier which runs along the front of them. The Hooker Glacier flows out behind Mt Cook coming down to meet the Mueller Glacier on the left of the photo. The Murchison Glacier is at the front of the photo running parallel with the Tasman Glacier"
17/30 Plankton bloom
"Another great pass over Patagonia and a swirling plankton bloom off the coast"
"We don’t often get such clear views of Alaska"
19/30 Lights along the Nile
"Lights along the Nile stretching into the distance from Cairo"
"The Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ clear to see amongst the volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia"
"I’m guessing there was an impressive storm going on under that cumulonimbus cloud"
22/30 Night Sahara
"Night-time Sahara – you can really see how thin the Earth’s atmosphere is in this picture"
"Tokyo and Japanese coast. This image shows most of Japan with the largest mass of light corresponding to Tokyo. The white lights on the left are fishing boats"
24/30 Morning sun volcanoes
"Morning sun striking active volcanoes in Guatemala"
25/30 Tapajos River
"The vast waters of the Tapajos river, Amazonia"
"Beautiful glacial river water flowing from this Patagonian ice field Lake Viedma, West is up"
27/30 Dubai Palms
"Minus the #Dragon photobomb this time..."
28/30 Sediment in Ethiopia
"Sediment spilling into this mountain lake, Ethiopia"
"We have phases of ‘short nights’ on the International Space Station – sunlight is nearly always visible right now. No prizes for guessing where this is…"
30/30 Panama Canal
"From one mighty ocean to another – ships passing through the Panama canal"
"Microbial life, as a whole, is pretty immune to cold, dry conditions," he said.
"Introduced to the intense radiation around Europa, exposed microbes should die off in hours to days to weeks, but organisms protected inside the spacecraft would still be alive as long as the silicon chips are functioning.”
Another significant concern is the potential for extra-terrestrial life to be brought back to Earth among any samples taken from other planets and moons.
But Dr Rummel expressed confidence that scientists would be able to keep anything harmful from spreading into the Earth’s natural environment.
"If we bring samples back from either Europa or Mars, we will contain them until hazard testing demonstrates that there is no danger and no life, or continue the containment indefinitely while we study the material,” he said.
"It is assumed that such life would be hardy — to survive the trip to Earth; not easy —and precautions taken would provide a very high degree of containment.”