No, this article’s title is not a typo and this search is not for our friends across the Atlantic. These potential Europans are not as conveniently located; in fact, they live on the distant moon of Jupiter. The icy surface of this moon, named Europa, might seem like a barren wasteland, but below its outer shell could lurk a hidden ocean; an ocean of liquid water that, until recently, has remained hidden without our knowledge. As Europa orbits Jupiter, the gravitational stress causes the moon’s core to heat up, which could melt the ice into a possible haven for life. Pictures of Europa’s surface, taken by the Galileo Space Satellite, also hint at this subterranean ocean with images of giant fissures and cracks that resemble the ice fractures we see in our own planet’s arctic. And so, this small moon has peaked the interest of every planetary scientist, astronomer, and cosmologist because it just might be abundant with the most crucial ingredient for life: liquid water.
Most importantly, this moon has inspired NASA to collaborate with the European Space Agency and plan a mission to the Jovian system. The Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) will send a pair of orbiting satellites to the icy moons of Jupiter that should arrive circa 2027. The JEO (jupiter Europa Orbiter) will study the moons Europa and Io and the JGO (Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter) will investigate the moons Ganymede and Callisto. The orbiters will be equipped with many different devices including ground penetrating radar, cameras, spectrometers and various others. Hopefully, this mission will give us a better idea of the structure and chemical composition of these icy worlds, and politically, this mission demonstrates the power of scientific cooperation. However, every science nerd around would contend that we are traveling an awfully long way to not take a peek under the ice and see what might be swimming around.
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This mission is definitely a step in the right direction and it will allow for valuable data to be acquired so that the next mission will be better equipped. It would seem foolish to send a underwater vessel before we even have definite proof that there are lakes present. The ice-penetrating radar of the JEO will be able to eliminate all doubt.
But is there more ingredients of life present than just water? Research done by NASA JPL scientist, Kevin Hand, and Cal Tech’s Mike Brown has discovered hydrogen peroxide on the surface of Europa. The presence of this molecule is enticing because, when it is mixed with water, the chemical reaction releases oxygen into the water. With oxygen enriched water this world seems even more likely a oasis of life. And so what should be our next mission? The proposed NASA Europa Ice-Penetrating Ocean mission might be just what us eager science geeks are waiting for. This mission will land on Europa and using a nuclear reactor it will heat its way through the icy surface and down into the mysterious oceans. Once they have reached the watery depths, an autonomous marine robot will emerge from the craft to search for signs of life and send radio transmissions back to Earth. Perhaps, on this distant world, we will find a vibrant ocean full of luminescent, aquatic organisms. If we do, it will be among the greatest discoveries of all time and it would suggest that there are many more undiscovered cradles of life strewn throughout the universe.