Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter, is a favourite target for everyone from serious exobiologists to optimistic science fiction authors as a likely setting to find alien life in our solar system. Today, NASA announced the nine instruments that will be on-board the next robotic explorer to investigate the enigmatic world.
Artist’s concept of the Europa mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The yet-to-be-named Europa mission is still a long way off — it won’t launch until the 2020s, and then it will take another 3 to 8 years to enter the Jovian system — but just took a major step forward with instrument selection. Of 33 proposed instruments for the orbiter, 9 were selected to begin the complicated process of moving from design through testing before eventually being mounted on the next robotic explorer. This will be the first mission to loiter around Europa since the Galileo spacecraft completed 11 flybys of the intriguing moon.
The instruments include cameras across a range for wavelengths, radar, mass spectrometers, and magnetic investigations to thoroughly characterize the tiny moon. This will be our first dedicated, detailed look at the moon, and the very first steps in searching for signs of life or potential habitability:
- Europa Imaging System (EIS): This pair of wide and narrow angle cameras will provide wide-coverage maps at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, with selected detailed areas at 100 times that resolution. It is under principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
- Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE): This spectrometer will use light signatures to identify the composition of Europa’s surface, mapping distribution of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials that can give hints about if Europa’s oceans could support life. It is under principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
- MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX): This mass spectrometer will sample the extremely tenuous atmosphere and any ejected surface material in an effort to determine the composition of the surface ice and subsurface ocean. It is under the direction of principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).
- Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS): This instrument will use the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa in conjunction with readings from a magnetometer (ICEMAG) to measure the ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity of the subsurface ocean. It is under principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
- Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG): This magnetometer will use multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding to measure the magnetic field of the tiny moon. In conjunction with plasma soundings (PIMS), it will be used to investigate the location, thickness, and salinity of Europa’s hidden oceans. It is under principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
- Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON): This ice-penetrating radar will be used to characterize the icy crust, revealing hidden structure of the ice shell. It is under principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas.
- Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS): This instrument will use multispectral thermal imaging to detect heat in an effort to map potential vents before plumes erupt (and simultaneously confirming that plumes exist). It is under principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University.
- Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS): The spectrograph will focus in the ultraviolet spectrum to focus on erupting water plumes, mimicking the techniques practiced by the Hubble Space Telescope to further characterize the composition and dynamics of the moon’s atmosphere. It is under principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).
- SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA): This mass spectrometer will measure any small, solid particles ejected from the moon to directly sample the surface and plumes on low-altitude flybys. It is under principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado.
Not yet selected for flight, SPace Environmental and Composition Investigation near the Europan Surface (SPECIES) has been selected for furhter technology development. The instrument blends neutral mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph, and may be developed for other, future mission opportunities. It is under the direction of Dr. Mehdi Benna at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The mission is currently funded through NASA’s 2016 fiscal year with $30 million destined to formulating the mission. The solar-powered spacecraft is intended to go on a long, looping orbit around Jupiter, making 45 flybys of Europa over a three-year mission. The flybys will range from near-skims at just 25 kilometers (16 miles) to massive overviews at 2,7000 kilometers (1,700 miles) altitude.
Considering how fascinating Europa is when we’ve just seen such a tiny slice of it, I am already excited with what we’ll learn from a more detailed, extensive view of the moon. And I’m not the only one: