The mission to Jupiter’s icy moon is a big deal

ESPN

“Jupiter’s moon Europa may create the conditions for life in its global ocean,” Steve Vance, an astrobiologist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at the Astrobiology Science Conference 2024.
“Europa Clipper is the first mission designed to investigate the habitability of an ocean world,” Vance said during the conference.
Scientists have designed the Europa Clipper mission to conduct multiple flybys of Europa in order to sample different aspects of the moon’s magnetic response.
This will give researchers an idea of how permeable the boundary is between Europa’s surface and interior.
“Europa’s surface is very geologically interesting, and has likely been active for a very long time.
This means oxygen transported from Europa’s surface to its interior could potentially be used in subsurface chemical reactions that generate energy.
MASPEX will collect gases and molecules in what exists of Europa’s atmosphere during the spacecraft’s close flybys.
The instrument bombards the materials it will scoop up from Europa’s atmosphere with high-energy electrons (negatively charged particles), which strips the collected materials of their own electrons.

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One of the most advanced spacecraft ever assembled is scheduled to launch in October this year by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon, is where it ended up.

The goal of the Europa Clipper mission is to reach Europa by 2030. It is equipped with a variety of instruments that can aid in the understanding of the complex composition and geology of the moon; in the end, the goal is to use these tools to improve the understanding of Europa’s habitability. Stated differently, their goal is to determine whether the moon is conducive to life—at least, life as we know it.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory astrobiologist Steve Vance stated at the Astrobiology Science Conference 2024 that “Jupiter’s moon Europa may create the conditions for life in its global ocean.”.

Related: Amazing high-resolution pictures of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa are taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft.

Several scientists working on various aspects of the mission recently spoke at the Astrobiology Science Conference 2024, an annual gathering of the astrobiology community aimed at fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange. The explorer’s instruments may provide intriguing hints about the existence of life, and they explored in fascinating detail how the spacecraft will arrive at its destination and what the mission might reveal about Europa’s environment.

Vance stated at the press conference that “Europa Clipper is the first mission designed to investigate the habitability of an ocean world.”.

Now, let’s explore the potential of this frozen planet, which is (on average) 444 million miles away from Earth.

Potential ocean surrounding Europa.

Galileo, an eight-year spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, was the first mission to be launched in 1989.

Europa most likely had a liquid ocean beneath its icy exterior surface, as scientists discovered after Galileo made flybys of the four main Jovian moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Since scientists did not know that liquid water could be found anywhere in our solar system save Earth at the time, this was an extremely exciting discovery. The finding demonstrated that liquid water could exist outside of the boundaries of the “Goldilocks zone,” or the region surrounding a star where liquid water can exist, which broadened our understanding of the range of habitability in our solar system. Planetary scientists have been eager to return to Europa ever since.

During the conference, Vance stated, “We are going to try to characterize the ocean using magnetic fields.”.

Vance stated, “An earlier spacecraft called Galileo flew by Europa four times, close enough to get a magnetic response.”. “This resembles Europa passing through an airport metal detector, but Jupiter is the metal detector that generated the field that Europa reacted to. “.

To sample various aspects of the moon’s magnetic response, scientists have designed the Europa Clipper mission to make multiple flybys of Europa. Researchers plan to measure the response’s timing in relation to Jupiter’s magnetic field in addition to trying to determine the response’s strength. We intend to use this to determine the ocean’s salinity, Vance stated.

Europa’s chemical composition.

Even though it would be exciting to confirm that Europa has liquid water, scientists are also interested in learning more about other lunar processes that may have an impact on the moon’s potential habitability.

In Jupiter’s magnetosphere, for instance, charged particles are trapped and expose Europa’s exterior to high radiation levels. Scientists would anticipate that such a surface would probably be uninhabitable to life under normal conditions. Radiation might, however, also play a role in Europa’s habitability. This is because water molecules on the moon’s surface can be broken down into their component elements, hydrogen and oxygen, by radiation exposure. The question of whether these resulting oxygen atoms from Europa’s surface can mix with the briny ocean below by draining near-surface brines through surface fissures is of interest to astronomers. But first, scientists would need to comprehend the dynamics and thickness of the moon’s ice sheet in order to come to that conclusion.

Europa Clipper is fortunately on the case.

The ice-penetrating radar is one of a suite of imaging instruments that the spacecraft will carry to help infer the geological processes taking place on the moon’s surface. This instrument can assist in determining the thickness of the ice shell. This will help scientists determine how permeable the wall separating the interior of Europa from its surface is.

Geologically speaking, Europe’s surface is extremely fascinating and most likely has been active for a very long time. Vance stated, “It might not be that thick, and there might be materials for life just beneath the surface.”.

For example, oxygen is a reactive element. This suggests that oxygen that is carried from Europa’s surface to its interior may be utilized in energy-producing subsurface chemical reactions. If those reactions did occur, it would be due to marine microbes that lack access to sunlight, which is their source of energy.

Hydrogen and other chemicals may also be released into the ocean by the interaction of water and rock deep within Europa. Additionally, Europa’s interior is probably warm because the moon is constantly flexing as a result of strong tidal forces as it orbits Jupiter. This suggests that hydrothermal vents, which function similarly to the vent systems on the ocean floor of Earth, might be providing chemical nutrients to the ocean floor.

searching for biological signatures.

Landing on the Jovian moon is not an option, at least not for this mission, as engineers and researchers do not yet have enough knowledge about Europa’s surface features.

When the spacecraft reaches Europa, the extent of what the researchers can observe and gather from orbit will therefore be constrained. Researchers will instead be searching for logical clues that are visible on the surface and in Europa’s atmosphere, since any possible life is most likely hidden in the planet’s interior.

Astrobiologists may be able to obtain solid proof that life is indeed taking place beneath the moon’s surface from the materials that the Europa Clipper’s array of instruments is designed to collect when ice geysers on the moon erupt.

“Biosignatures” is the term that astronomers typically use to describe such evidence. A chemical residue left over from biological processes is called a biosignature. One biosignature produced by plants, for instance, might be the high oxygen content of the Earth’s atmosphere. But what is deemed a biosignature in one situation might not be in another. Phosphine, a potential biosignature, was found in trace amounts in the Venusian atmosphere recently, as an illustration of this. Some people suspected that Venus’ atmosphere contained anaerobic organisms because phosphine, a byproduct of anaerobic ecosystems on Earth, was present there. But later studies showed that volcanism might be the source of the phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere.

Chemicals that we typically associate with living processes can also be produced by non-living processes, clouding what we might interpret as indications of life. That is to say, any potential biosignature must make sense within the framework of the system in which it lies.

Within the framework of Earth, plants, cyanobacteria, and algae continuously replenish the atmosphere with oxygen. Since oxygen in our atmosphere is highly reactive, it wouldn’t last long if it wasn’t being replenished, so anyone observing Earth’s atmosphere from space would assume that something interesting is happening based on our high oxygen levels. But, prior to the Great Oxygenation Event 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen would not have been present in Earth’s atmosphere as a sign of life. Earth would appear unremarkable, despite supporting life.

“Many studies have been conducted to identify chemical biosignatures and their detection methods. Although we tend to think of life as binary, it’s not always simple or binary to detect,” Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said during the conference. On Europa Clipper, Turtle is in charge of the Europa Imaging System (EIS).

A highly intriguing technological instrument being transported by the Europa Clipper to the Jovian system is the Mass Spectrometer for Planetary Exploration, or MASPEX. During the spacecraft’s close flybys of Europa, MASPEX will gather gases and molecules present in the atmosphere.

The device removes the electrons from the materials it will remove from Europa’s atmosphere by subjecting them to a barrage of high-energy electrons, or negatively charged particles. As a result, the molecules are trapped and converted into positively charged ions. When a positively charged particle, such as an electron, is added to or removed from a positively charged particle, such as a proton, an atom or molecule is said to be ionized.

Then, MASPEX-produced ions can be accelerated around an additional “drift tube” on the device, which allows lighter ions to travel through it more quickly. Therefore, scientists can determine the identities of the ions and their masses by measuring how quickly they travel through the tube.

At AbSciCon2024, Vance stated, “While the goal is to understand the chemistry that directs Europa, including the possible metabolisms that might happen in Europa’s oceans, the mass spectrometer and the dust analyzer also have the possibility of picking up large organic molecules including amino acids and things that might be clues to the presence of life — though not definitive evidence of life itself.”.

A major reason for optimism among researchers regarding the possibility of life on Europa will be provided if MASPEX is able to identify organic molecules, including amino acids, and provides evidence that materials from the moon’s surface have a direct route to the ocean below.

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