Episode 1- The Search for Life and Habitability in Alien Waterworlds:
“Is There Anybody Out There!?”
Searching for Life on MARS is sooo 2010…..
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or an ocean–somewhere you might soon actually have the incredible option to experience as introduced in Gav’s Under Ocean Habitats post), you’ve likely heard of Mankind’s Mission to Mars. Once we found evidence there might be ice on the Red Planet, we knew there was potential (however slight) to also be evidence of life. So we packed our bags (robots) and headed to Mars—or something like that.
But that was sooo 2010.
Yes, that’s right, scientists are in the process of searching for life on Mars as we speak or rather their robots and cameras are.
But while that’s going on, a new directive for NASA to establish an Ocean Worlds Exploration Programme has been given the green light.
Hundreds of thousands of miles away (350,000 to 650,000 depending on where in its eliptical orbit it is relative to the earth at the time) in orbit around the Massive Planet (Jupiter) is a Moon designated Europa. Evidence has been gathered recently that suggests hidden beneath 10-20 miles of ice lies what might be scientists’ best ever opportunity to find Extra-Terrestrial Life- a massive Subsurface Ocean.
Near the end of May 2015, The House of Appropriations Committee (which has the responsibility of assigning the annual budget(s) for NASA) allocated $1.6 Billion (that’s Billion with a B) to fund Planetary Sciences (see NASA On a Budget Below). This in large part includes both Nasa’s Search for Alien Life and a visit to Europa.
Yesterday the Mission (which is planned for the 2020’s) got the official NASA stamp of approval and moved from Concept Phase to Development Phase.
The Mission, which was formerly called Europa Clipper has been given the extremely telling (and awkward) interim title Europa Multi Flyby Mission. It will keep that title until such time as it is given an official name, whenever that might be. The current Mission plans to orbit Jupiter every two weeks and include a whopping 45 individual flybys.
“An Exciting Step….”
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a press release: “We are taking an exciting step from concept to mission in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth…
…Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions, mainly, Is There Life Beyond Earth?”
Subsurface Ocean World
(Jupiter, as seen from Voyager)
Back in the 1970’s, Pioneer 10 and 11 gave us our first glimpse of Europa, the 6th largest Moon in our Solar System spanning almost 2000 miles and in orbit around Jupiter. Then in the 1980’s twin Voyager Satellites (not to be confused with Captain Janeway’s Voyager Starship on Star Trek Voyager) gave us our first detailed look at the smoothest body in the Solar System.
More importantly, these photos delivered evidence suggesting Europa might be hiding a massive Subsurface Ocean.
Next came the Galileo spacecraft which returned to us the most detailed looks at Europa’s surface to date.
Europa has a 10 to 20 mile thick icy outer crust (Surface Ice Shell) that apparently harbors a salty Subsurface Ocean.
3 Phases to Exploring New Worlds
When Mankind sets out to explore new worlds, we do it in three phases.
2) Robotic Landers
This three-step process has served us well throughout space history and is both how we have explored the Moon and how we are currently exploring Mars.
4 Objectives for Mission Stage 1 Europa Flyby
1) Explore the Surface Ice Shell AND the Subsurface Ocean (yes, this could have been divided into 2 objectives)
2) Find the composition, distribution, and chemistry of various compounds and their relationships to the ocean composition
3) Map the surface features and determine if there is any current geologic activity
4) Identify sites where a future lander might safely touch down
A Marvellous Day….
The bill drawn up by the US House Appropriations Committee can be viewed here online ( see page 56 for Europa funding).
It proposes to give NASA $18.529 billion of funding til September 2016 – over $519 million more than the previous year.
It emphasizes searching for life both in our own solar system and beyond and sets out plans for multiple missions.
Planetary Science funding was slashed in 2013 with a myriad of cuts but with this announcement was restored to pre-2013 levels.
“This is a marvellous day for planetary science and the search for life,” said science reporter Eric Berger from the Houston Chronicle.
NASA ON A BUDGET (Proposed Budget)
Science: $5.237 billion
Exploration: $4.759 billion
Space operations: $3.957 billion
Education: $119 million
Other: $3.23 billion
Total: $18.529 billion
The bill proposes $140 million for a robotic mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa – $110 million above what was requested.
It directs Nasa to achieve a launch ‘no later than 2022’ on its upcoming Space Launch System rocket.
A further $86 million (£5is intended for the Ocean Worlds Exploration Programme, with a goal to ‘discover (existing) life’ on one of the solar system’s outer moons.
In addition to Europa, there are plans to explore Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, which are also thought to have vast reservoirs of water – and possibly life – under their surface.
Stay tuned for all the details on our current Mission to Mars and Destination: Europa as it expands and future Missions. I will also be doing a complementary mini-series featuring related Planetary Science including How Life Was Formed, The Energy of Life, and What to Look For to Find Alien Life, coming soon in further instalments of my Search for Alien Life: “Is There Anybody Out There!?” Series.