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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Your picture is everything in the shallow world of online dating
i100
Life and Style
Attractive women on the Internet: not a myth
techOkCupid boasts about Facebook-style experiments on users
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Defendant Personal Injury 2+PQE

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - NICHE DEFENDANT FIRM - Defendant Pe...

Java Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: JAVA DEVELO...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Developer

£475 - £550 per day: Progressive Recruitment: MDAX / Dynamics AX / Microsoft D...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on