Friday, August 28, 2009

Europa: Anybody Home?

This is supposed to be a space blog, though you might not know it from my last few weeks of posts. But in the September 2009 issue of Discover Magazine, I just read a great article on plans for the exploration of Jupiter's moon Europa. The likely presence of an enormous ocean of liquid water below Europa's icy surface has many people wondering about the possibility of some form of life there. The missions under study would not directly detect life, but would gather more information about Europa's environment and surface and use ice-penetrating radar to determine how thick the ice layer is and perhaps even directly confirm the presence of water. The 2020 Europa Jupiter System Mission is estimated to cost $4 billion (for NASA's part) and would be coordinated with a separate ESA probe to the Jupiter system, though the funding for both parts of the proposed mission is hardly certain at this point (NASA's probe would orbit Europa, ESA's probe would orbit Ganymede).

The Discover article is already online, and there's a great Science Channel video based on the article here (and embedded above). There's a NASA/ESA "joint summary" report here (PDF 10 MB, 38 pages, January 2009).

If you'd like to do some exploration of the Jupiter system for yourself, you can use the Orbiter space flight simulator as I did back in April when I was preparing for my first IYA podcast. In that podcast, I started out by imagining that I was orbiting Europa and then initiated a transfer orbit to visit Callisto. I simulated that mission in Orbiter so I could talk about what I would see if I really took such a trip (assuming I could survive the radiation).

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