NASA'S Europa Clipper gets science gear to probe ocean moon of Jupiter


In October, NASA’s scheduled to launch a spacecraft to one of Jupiter’s 92 known moons, an icy marble named Europa. The probe’s main purpose? To help scientists figure out if Europa can support life as we know it.

This robotic explorer is aptly called the Europa Clipper, and, according to a release put out by the agency on Tuesday (Jan. 30), Clipper’s looking pretty ready for its cosmic journey. In short, all of its nine science instruments and a telecommunication system have been installed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California — in addition to my name (literally). But, that’s a whole other story.

The technology haul includes gear like a mass spectrometer that’ll measure the mass-to-charge ratio of gas molecules on Europa, a surface dust analyzer and an imaging spectrometer that’ll study interactions between light and matter to map out the moon’s ices, salts and organic molecules.

Related: A poem for Europa Clipper: US Poet Laureate Ada Limón reveals ode to fly on NASA Jupiter moon mission

There are also, of course, cameras aboard Europa Clipper that NASA says will take wide-angle and narrow-angle shots of the moon’s icy surface — we can expect some cool color pictures to show us what it might be like to stand on a moon hundreds of millions of miles from our planet.

This is quite intriguing because, aside from the obvious reasons, getting new and detailed data about Europa’s surface may explain some puzzling things scientists have been seeing — such as a study that suggests NASA’s Jupiter-studying Juno spacecraft detected recent activity in the region.

Speaking of, because of that incredibly huge distance, Clipper is set to arrive in the Jupiter system no earlier than 2030. The spacecraft will orbit the giant planet for at least four years, performing 49 close flybys of Europa during that stretch.

“The instruments work together hand-in-hand to answer our most pressing questions about Europa,” Robert Pappalardo, the mission’s project scientist, said in the statement. “We will learn what makes Europa tick, from its core and rocky interior to its ocean and ice shell to its very thin atmosphere and the surrounding space environment.”

This mission feels like such a big deal because many scientists consider Europa one of the best places in our solar system to search for evidence of alien life. It meets tons of requirements that a world needs to be conducive to hosting life (as we know it, at least), such as a salty subsurface ocean. In fact, scientists are so excited by the concept of icy moons with subsurface oceans in general that they’ve even begun planning how to create cryobots someday that can “burrow” beneath frozen crusts while allowing the crust itself to heal back up. And, just last year, the James Webb Space Telescope managed to find evidence of carbon in Europa’s subsurface sea.

On top of that, there are possible water vapor plumes emanating from Europa’s icy surface . That bit is crucial for Europa Clipper, allowing it to potentially grab samples from the moon’s subsurface without even touching down. (Clipper will not land, but it’s gathering data for a potential future Europa lander mission.)

To that end, the spacecraft will have a few tricks up its sleeve (imagine that how you wish) in order to study that enticing, buried ocean. “A spectrograph will collect ultraviolet light to search for plumes and identify how the properties of the dynamic atmosphere change over time,” the NASA release states, adding that a magnetometer will be onboard as well.

“That data will be key to understanding the ocean, because the field is created, or induced, by the electrical conductivity of the ocean’s saltwater as Europa moves through Jupiter’s strong magnetic field,” the release explains. “Working in tandem with the magnetometer is an instrument that will analyze the plasma (charged particles) around Europa, which can distort magnetic fields.”

Meanwhile, a radar instrument will transmit radio waves to the surface of Europa, then watch as those waves bounce off specific features that potentially lie on the icy ground — and maybe even within the ocean. Scientists can then measure how long it took for the waves to bounce back, and therefore learn how far away those features were. All in all, this should provide a pretty solid picture of what it looks like beneath Europa’s frozen envelope. The antennas required for this instrument will be placed on the craft later this year, the team says.

Related Stories:

— Europa: A guide to Jupiter’s icy moon

— NASA Juno spacecraft picks up hints of activity on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa

— I’m sending my name to Jupiter’s moon Europa on a NASA spacecraft — and here’s why you should, too

There are also a couple other instruments that’ll add to the synergy onboard Europa Clipper; at the end of the day, the team says the key for this mission is for everything to work together and ultimately create the best map of the tantalizing ice world ever.

“The science is better if we obtain the observations at the same time,” Pappalardo said. “What we’re striving for is integration, so that at any point we are using all the instruments to study Europa at once and there is no need to have to trade off among them.”



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