Nasa eyes Europa: Could the oceans of Jupiter's moon be hiding extraterrestrial life?

The US space agency has announced its 2015 budget - with $15m set aside for exploratory work for a mission to Europa

We’ve yet to find definitive evidence of life on Mars but for Nasa the search is continuing further afield. In its latest budget request the US space agency set aside funds to explore a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, often described as one of the solar system’s best bets for hosting alien life.

Nasa’s annual federal budget request of $17.5bn (down by $1.2bn from its 2010 peak) has set aside $15m for “pre-formulation work” on a mission to the moon, with plans to make detailed observations and possibly sample its interior oceans.

Scientists believe that underneath Europa’s icy exterior is a single, massive ocean that contains almost twice as much water as is found on Earth, kept liquid by the gravitational pull of Jupiter – a force that creates tidal swells 1,000 times stronger than those caused by our own Moon.

An image of the surface of Europa taken by the Galileo space probe showing the streaks and 'lenticulae' thought to have been formed by ice erupting onto the surface.

Although for many years it was believed that the existence of life was dependent on absorbing energy from the Sun, in the past 40 years scientists have discovered that microbial life can thrive even in the most extreme, sun-less environments.

These include the discovery diverse organisms including tube worms and shrimp found around the deep-sea hydrothermal vents known as ‘black smokers’.

In addition to the possibility of life under the ice, observations made late last year by the Hubble telescope suggest that enormous jets of water some 200km tall (that’s twice as high as Earth’s atmosphere) are spurting from Europa’s southern pole.

This would mean that the Europa Clipper – a concept space probe that Nasa has been developing for just such a mission – could conceivably fly through these plumes of water vapour, collecting samples from Europa’s interior without having to face the cost and difficulty of landing on the surface.

(L-R): A map of Europa's southern pole, where the geysers are thought to be erupting; an artist's conception of the geysers. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/Seti

Although the 2015 proposed budget is the first time funding to study Europa has been explicitly requested, Nasa has has stressed that all of this work is extremely preliminary.

"Europa is a very challenging mission operating in a really high radiation environment, and there's lots to do to prepare for it," Nasa’s chief financial officer Beth Robinson said to reporters on Tuesday. "We're looking for a launch some time in the mid-2020s.”

And while the $15m set aside for research on a Europa mission is tiny compared to the total budget, space enthusiasts should not be downhearted – more than of the proposed budget was allocated for “human exploration operations”, aka getting humans off the planet.

An illustration of the proposed Europa Clipperperforming a fly-by over Europa. Nasa is currently working on a new crew vehicle (the Orion spacecraft) as well a heavy-lifting rocket designed "to take astronauts farther into the solar system than we have ever gone before."

Both of these craft will be instrumental in the space agency’s plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars some time in the 2030s. So even if we don’t find extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the Solar System, it seems we'll at least be getting better at getting away from our own planet.

Click here to read Nasa's highlights from the 2015 budget request

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
News
people
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: International Trade Advisors - Hertfordshire or Essex

£30000 - £35379 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is based in Welwyn ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Controller - Response Centre

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Resource and Recruitment Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Resource and Recruitment Manage...

Recruitment Genius: Junior IT Support Technician

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior IT Support Technician ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn