Congressman Divulges Unreleased Study to Win Support for Life-Hunting Mission to Jupiter's Moon Europa

Artist’s rendering of the Europa Clipper.
Artist’s rendering of the Europa Clipper.
Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A mission that would sample plumes of gas shooting off of Jovian moon Europa appears to remain on track for a 2022 launch, after a meeting of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee in which Republican Congressman John Culberson shared unreleased scientific results with his colleagues. The new paper could contain findings based on data from the Galileo mission of the late 1990s.

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SpaceNews reports:

At the May 9 markup, Culberson passed around a scientific paper with involving a new discovery about Europa and the existence of plumes that offer additional proof that the icy moon [has] a subsurface ocean of liquid water.

“It’s worth noting that the scientific journal Nature Astronomy just reported that the Galileo mission, back in 1997, flew through a water plume on Europa a thousand kilometers thick. So, the ocean of Europa is venting into outer space,” [Said John Culberson, Republican representative from Texas.] “The science community has wanted to go there for years, Mr. Chairman, and this bill makes that happen.”

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These results have not actually been reported yet, as they are under embargo by the journal Nature Astronomy. Journals typically grant some people, mostly journalists, early access to view scientific papers so they have more time to digest the results and report on them accurately. Mentioning the results prior to their release usually results in a loss of these privileges, so Gizmodo will not discuss the specifics beyond Culberson’s public statements and their context.

You may know that Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, could potentially have a layer of water beneath its surface. Perhaps this water is home to life that subsists on heat and methane deep beneath the surface, like the life around our own geothermal vents. NASA hopes to find evidence of this life with a “Europa Clipper,” a mission whose objectives would include flying over the moon looking for plumes of water and perhaps sampling any biological material spewing forth from cracks in the ice.

The Hubble space telescope has already spotted possible evidence of such plumes. Their existence would be bolstered by the results divulged by Culberson.

With the data in mind, the CJS subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee approved the spending bill that allocates $545 million for the Europa Clipper, according to SpaceNews. It also includes $195 million for a potential lander. The bill will soon go to the full appropriations committee. The clipper would launch in 2022 and the lander in 2024, if the project continues to receive the funding it needs to remain on track.

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Scientists on Twitter are eager to see the results, while journalists are frustrated that they’ve been partially revealed prior to the agreed-upon release date. We’ll keep you updated once we can publish the specifics, but know that the Europa Clipper has a friend in Congress.

[via SpaceNews]

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Science Writer, Founder of Birdmodo

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DISCUSSION

If there’s life on Europa, then there’s likely life in lots of other places. We bring up the Fermi Paradox quite a bit when we talk about life because if life is common, then intelligent life must be nearly as common within a few orders of magnitude. And over the 14 billion years the universe has been here, that’s more than enough time for us to be swimming in species capable of at least Kardashev Type 2 technology. Why wouldn’t we see them? That’s the paradox right? There is a simple answer: we’re not advanced enough to see them and/or they don’t want us to see them.

There are still vast gaps in our knowledge and our science. Great oceans of darkness where we have yet to shine a light. We’re young, and insignificant. Why wouldn’t they want us to “see” them? Easily enough explained, even if we only observed from afar with telescopes and signals... we could divine some of their technology. We might even suss it out before we were ready for it, which would be bad for us. Even if they could snuff us out with literally no more effort than pressing a button, why bother with even that when you likely won’t have to. Why take a chance that we could get something that brings us into contact before we are ready for it? There’s nothing to gain for them and everything potentially to lose. Our desires don’t enter into this equation.

And their tech might be undetectable by us. Maybe there’s billions of civilizations that harvest the cold, unused gasses between the galaxies. Countless trillions upon trillions of beings who have mastered all the techniques and can extract energy from total conversion with vast structures that interact weakly or perhaps not at all with the EM spectrum as we know it. Who knows... maybe that’s the dark matter and energy we seek?

Answers always seem obvious in hindsight. I suspect we have already seen some hints as to why we have this paradox. We think too highly of ourselves, after all. We suppose that we’re important, that we’d naturally attract all the universe’s attention because we’re special. That’s our creation there - and the only people who feel that way about us live on one tiny, insignificant world orbiting a mostly insignificant star in a rather uninteresting patch of space in an average galaxy in an average cluster in a rural part of the universe.

The fermi paradox is a rather silly thing when you consider all the potential ways someone even just a bit more advanced than we are has available to them to hide their presence, how short the time is that we’d detect them, and how few people actually care about the paradox itself to actually invest in a real search to prove it one way or another.

If there’s life in Europa... there’s life in lots of places. Its just another step on the road.