NASA wants to send a life-detecting mission to Europa

A team of 21 scientists commissioned last summer to evaluate the feasibility of sending a lander to Europa has come up with a box-shaped, thin-legged concept spacecraft capable of drilling into the moon’s icy crust to search for life in its salty subterranean ocean, a new report indicates.

The report was commissioned by NASA in June 2016, and according to Engadget and Gizmodo, it recommends sending a robotic probe to the Jovian satellite to search for evidence of current or past life, to evaluate its habitability by analyzing non-ice materials present on the surface and characterize the properties of those surface and subsurface materials for future investigations.

NASA emphasizes that the proposed mission would be separate from the previously announced Europa multiple flyby mission, which is currently in development and scheduled to launch early in the 2020s. The lander, on the other hand, is still in its early stages and is currently being slated for a 2031 launch, provided everything goes as planned.

“I think it’s a great design,” Cornell University professor Jonathan Lunine, a member of the team that developed the lander, told Gizmodo. “I was skeptical that we could, in fact, design a payload with a reasonable technological maturity and relative simplicity. Thanks to the engineers, a very practical solution was found and the payload we put together is not overly ambitious.”

“The bottom line is I became much more of a believer that this is a mission that can be done in a time frame I’d be interested, in the next 20 years or so,” he added. The next step will be to hold a pair of town hall meetings to discuss the report and to receive feedback from other scientists. The first will be held at the 2017 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas on March 19, and the other will be April 23 at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Arizona.

Detailing scientific instruments, other technology needed for the mission

One of the chief goals of the proposed lander will be to find evidence of amino acids, carboxylic acids, lipids and other molecules of potentially biological origin on Europa, the report said. This will require the use of a Baseline Separation-Mass Spectrometry (S-MS) instrument that can take samples and analyze them for organic compounds and amino acids.

The lander would also use instruments to determine whether carbon stable isotope distribution is consistent with biological activity, to resolve and characterize microscale evidence for life in the samples it collects, to identify objects as small as one millimeter in the vehicle’s workspace (and to do so in color), and to search for evidence of extant or fossil biology by determining the make-up of non-ice inorganic materials and minerals found near the surface, the report noted.

“The important thing to remember is that this is intended to be a ‘bug hunt,’” Lumine explained to Gizmodo. “This is designed to land in a place where based on the Europa flyby mission, there would be deposits from the ocean, organic materials, that sort of thing. So the intent is to use instruments that can detect the signs of life on those samples.”

In a statement, NASA said that the scientists behind the report were “tasked with developing a life-detection strategy, a first for a NASA mission since the Mars Viking mission era more than four decades ago.” In addition to recommending how many and what types of instruments may be needed to hunt for signs of life on Europa’s surface, the team also worked with engineers to developing a landing system capable of landing on a surface that they know little about.


Image credit: NASA/JPL