NASA Discusses Future Robotic Lander Mission To Europa
August 7, 2013

NASA Discusses Future Robotic Lander Mission To Europa

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Jupiter's moon Europa, with its icy surface and potential for a liquid ocean underneath, has fascinated scientists for years and a new NASA-backed report looks at just how an exploratory mission might play out on its surface.

The report's authors are describing it as the first step in a process that is expected to take years and cover billions of miles to complete.

"If one day humans send a robotic lander to the surface of Europa, we need to know what to look for and what tools it should carry," said study author Robert Pappalardo, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa, but studies like these will help us focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations."

"Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life," he added.

The authors said their blueprint includes analyzing the moon's habitability by examining its surface composition, ocean -- should it have one -- and geology. An ideal Europa lander would have a series of seismometers embedded in six legs, the report said. The instruments would allow mission scientists to calculate the depth of the moon's exterior ice shell. They could also record the tidal forces that continuously act on the ice.

The scientists said they also see the lander analyzing the chemical composition of the top layer of surface ice. Using a drill and series of spectrometers, the lander could analyze chemical compositions in much the same way that the Curiosity rover does on the Martian surface right now. The scientists said the lander should also examine surface features to provide context for the measurements that are currently being taken from space.

"Landing on the surface of Europa would be a key step in the astrobiological investigation of that world," said Chris McKay, a senior editor of the journal Astrobiology, which published the report, and a NASA researcher. "This paper outlines the science that could be done on such a lander. The hope would be that surface materials, possibly near the linear crack features, include biomarkers carried up from the ocean."

The report comes as NASA continues to work on the $2-billion Europa Clipper mission. Expected to launch sometime after 2020, the mission would send a spacecraft into an elliptical orbit around the Jovian moon after a six-year jaunt across the solar system.

During the course of approximately three-dozen flybys, the orbiting craft would scan Europa's atmosphere and penetrate its surface using radar. It is also expected to capture hundreds of images and other interesting bits of data. The orbiter would also scan the surface for a potential landing site.

Interest surrounding the distant moon appears to be on the rise as evidenced by the recent release of the movie Europa Report. The science fiction thriller envisions what a manned mission to Europa might look like.