The search for life in the Solar System is about the hunt for water. Wherever we find liquid water on Earth, we find life. I’m talking everywhere. In the most briny, salty pools in Antarctica, in the hottest hot springs in Yellowstone, under glaciers, and kilometers deep underground.
So we go searching for liquid water in the Solar System.
You might be surprised to learn that Jupiter’s moon Europa has the most water in the entire Solar System. If you took all the water on Earth, collected it into a big sphere, it would measure almost 1,400 kilometers across.
Europa’s water would measure nearly 1,800 kilometers.All that water exists in a layer around Europa, encased in a layer of ice. How thick? We don’t know.
Is there life down there? We don’t know. You can say there might be, and it wouldn’t be untrue. However, if you say there isn’t, that’s way less interesting for clickbait purposes. Whenever we don’t know the answers to fundamental and intriguing questions like that, it’s time to send a mission.
Good news! An actual mission to Europa is in the works right now. In 2015, NASA approved the development of an orbiter mission to Europa. If all goes well, and nothing gets cancelled, a spacecraft will launch in the 2020s, carrying 9 instruments to Europa. Most will be familiar cameras, mass spectrometers, and the like, to study the surface of Europa to a high level of resolution. Over the course of 45 flybys, the spacecraft will get down as close as 25 kilometers and capture it with incredible resolution.
Perhaps the most exciting, and controversial instrument on board the new Europa Orbiter mission will be its ice-penetrating radar. Mission planners battled over installing a radar this sophisticated, as it will be an enormous drain on the orbiter’s power.
This for us is incredibly exciting. It will allow the spacecraft to map out the depth and thickness of Europa’s icy exterior. Is it thick or thin? Are there pockets of water trapped just below the surface, or is it tough shell that goes on for dozens of kilometers?
The worst case scenario is that the shell goes thicker than the radar can reach, and we won’t even know how far it goes.
Whatever happens, the Europa orbiter will be a boon to science, answer outstanding questions about the moon and the chances of finding life there.
We’re just getting started. What we really want to send is a lander. Because of the intense radiation from Jupiter, the Sun, and space itself, the surface of the ice on Europa would be sterilized. But dig down a few centimeters and you might find life that’s protected from the radiation.
A future Europa lander might be equipped with a heated drill attached to a tether. The lander would be have with a heat-generated radioisotope thermoelectric generator, like most of NASA’s big, outer Solar System spacecraft.
But in addition to using it for electricity, it’ll use the raw heat to help a tethered drill to grind through the ice a few meters and sample what’s down there.
Drilling more than a few meters is probably the stuff of science fiction. Russian scientists in Antarctica drilled for almost two decades to get through 4,000 meters of ice above Lake Vostok. Imagine trying to get through 100 kilometers of the stuff, on a distant world, with a robot.
But, since I’ve talked about moving the Sun, and terraforming the Moon, maybe I shouldn’t put any bounds on my imagination. Nuclear-powered Europa submarines will get us swimming with the singing Europan space whales in no time.
Europa is the best place to search the Solar System for life, and I’m excited to see what the upcoming Europa Orbiter mission turns up. And I’m even more excited about the possibility of any future lander missions.
Illustration by Kevin Hand (JPL/Caltech), Jack Cook (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Howard Perlman (USGS)