The way things have been going lately over at NASA, it often seems like we'd be lucky just to see another moon mission before we all die. But some NASA researchers are still aiming high, beyond our own moon and beyond even Mars. That's right; it's time to land something on Jupiter's moon, Europa.
Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are working on a concept for a mission that would send two identical landers (in case one breaks down) to Europa to find out just how inhabitable the moon might be. Though we've spent a lot of time trying to determine whether Mars once supported life (or still does), some researchers see Europa—and the possible liquid water lurking beneath its surface—as the best bet in our solar system for life beyond Earth.
"Europa, I think, is the premier place to go for extant life," said Kevin Hand of the JPL. "Europa really does give us this opportunity to look for living life in the ocean that is there today, and has been there for much of the history of the solar system."
Each of the robotic landers would weigh just over 700 pounds and be decked out with equipment including seismometers, cameras and mass spectrometers to detect organic chemicals on Europa, if they're there. Because of the constant flow of powerful radiation hitting Europa courtesy of Jupiter—and because fitting the landers with radiation shields is expensive and makes the journey more difficult—each robot would have a working lifespan of about seven days.
Hand stressed that if the mission gets off the ground—and it's really only a conceptual thing at the moment—it would only be for "habitability" purposes. It's about discovering if a support system for any kind of life could exist on Europa, not about proving that life is or was there.
The cost of the mission could come in at anywhere between $800 million and $2 billion, making it cheaper than NASA's other potential Jupiter Europa Orbiter mission, which would cost about $4.7 billion and wouldn't actually land anything on the moon's surface. If the landers go from concept to reality, they would launch sometime in 2020 and reach Europa for landing around 2026.
So, if we make it to Jupiter (or rather, one of its moons), what might we find?