Is there life on Mars?” Perhaps the question is a bit dated. While the past existence of Martian life seems increasingly likely, scientists look towards Jupiter’s moon Europa as one of the solar system’s top candidates for contemporary extraterrestrial life. Located 390,400,000 miles from Earth, Europa is covered by an icy crust that conceals a vast ocean that may be hospitable to life. “After five billion years with conditions like that, it could be a very habitable place,” says Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division. “We believe the environment is just perfect for the potential development of life.” NASA has released details of its previously announced mission to Europa, which outline exactly how scientists will gather data to learn more about Europa’s life-sustaining qualities.


Europa, ocean

To prepare for the pioneering mission, NASA conducted a thorough analysis to determine what equipment was best fit to search for signs of life. Out of thirty-three potential tools, nine were selected, including:

  • An advanced radar device to identify land forms such as lakes and glaciers within the moon’s crust
  • A high-resolution imaging system to map Europa’s surface
  • An infrared spectrometer to analyze Europa’s chemical composition; specifically, scientists hope to identify the “brown gunk” on Europa’s surface
  • A heat detector to find “hot spots” which may indicate hydrothermal vents, such as those found in the depths of Earth’s oceans
  • A magnetometer and a plasma instrument to measure the thickness of Europa’s crust and the depth of its ocean

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With a launch date sometime in the 2020s, the Europa mission is expected to cost $2 billion dollars. Its unmanned spacecraft, the Europa Clipper, will spend one year en route to the moon, followed by three years in orbit. During its Europa stay, the spacecraft will perform at least 45 close fly-bys to gather extensive data in search of extraterrestrial life. “If we do find life or indications of life that will be an enormous step forward in our understanding of our place in the universe,” says Green. “If there’s life in the solar system and in Europa in particular, it must be everywhere in our galaxy and perhaps even in the universe.”


Images via NASA