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NASA hopes to explore possible alien life on Jupiter’s moon Europa

Europa. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute]

Europa. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute]

NASA’s next mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa will also look for forms of alien life or at least signs of life on the frozen planet, which has witnessed blasts of water vapour in the moon’s polar region.

The research team hopes that this could be a way to sample the liquid water, which is normally inaccessible through the thick layer of ice covering the moon.

“Europa is clearly such a prime target for astrobiology that having a workshop like this to try and figure out all the ways in which we could possibly sample its oceana,” said Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The project has been given a budget of $30 million by the White House for the first phase, part of a $18.5-billion request that is still awaiting Congressional approval. In all the mission to Europa would cost more than $2 billion.

NASA plans to send a vessel that would reach Jupiter’s orbit and make 45 flybys of Europa over 3.5 years.

Apart from collecting water samples, the mission would also measure and map the icy shell surface, which could lay the groundwork for the next mission to Europa.

Europa mission envisages a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa, carrying a payload of science instruments including a radar to penetrate the frozen crust and determine the thickness of the ice shell, an infrared spectrometer to investigate the composition of Europa’s surface materials, a topographic camera for high-resolution imaging of surface features, and an ion and neutral mass spectrometer to analyze the moon’s trace atmosphere during flybys.

The Europa Clipper mission would perform 45 flybys at altitudes of 1700 miles to 16 miles (2700 kilometers to 25 kilometers) to unpuzzle the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

The image is a newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s and the color view shows the largest portion of the moon’s surface at the highest resolution.

The long, linear cracks and ridges crisscross the surface, interrupted by regions of disrupted terrain where the surface ice crust has been broken up and re-frozen into new patterns.

The areas in blue or white contain relatively pure water ice, while reddish and brownish areas include non-ice components in higher concentrations.

The polar regions are noticeably bluer than the equatorial latitudes, which are in white. This color variation is attributed to differences in ice grain size in these locations.

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