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.
- 1 Home Office says Nigerian asylum-seeker can’t be a lesbian as she’s got children
- 2 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 3 Japanese island overrun with cats after population explodes
- 4 Apple and Google users being spied on for a decade because of 'Freak' security flaw
- 5 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
The City of the Monkey God: Archaeologists claim to have found city lost for 1,000 years in remote Honduran jungle
Japanese island overrun with cats after population explodes
Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
Bubonic plague-carrying fleas found on New York City rats
London property boom built on dirty money
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'
£30000 - £35379 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is based in Welwyn ...
£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...
£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Resource and Recruitment Manage...
£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior IT Support Technician ...