The minds at NASA have been working on an exploratory mission to Jupiter's moon Europa for a while now, and the project has just taken a major step forward.
According to NASA, the mission concept aiming to conduct a detailed survey of Europa and investigate its habitability has successfully completed its first major review by the agency and now is entering the development phase known as formulation. It's not quite ready to launch, obviously, but it means NASA is truly serious about making it happen — and it might just be the next project on the docket.
"Today we're taking an exciting step from concept to mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "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."
Scientists have considered Europa a prime candidate for alien life ever since NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter in the late 1990s led them to believe the icy Europa might house a massive underground ocean with twice as much water as Earth. Though the surface is ice, researchers believe the massive ocean underneath could be the perfect breeding ground for life. Can you say "alien fish"?
The plan is to launch a spacecraft toward Jupiter on a multi-year journey in the 2020s, where it'll arrive and orbit the planet every two weeks. That orbit should provide the opportunity for 45 flybys of Europa, during which the spacecraft will image the moon's icy surface at high resolution. The goal will be to investigate its composition and the structure of its interior and icy shell.
Instruments have already been selected for the mission, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., is managing the project. The mission has been in the concept phase since 2011.
Of course, if we're going to Europa, no mission story would be complete without a reference to 2010. Explore at your own risk, humanity.