Welcome to our new semi-regular column, Space Case—where we travel to the far reaches of the universe in order to bring you the most stellar space-related news this side of the solar system.
NASA has confirmed it’s sending a spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa in order to find out whether or not, beneath its icy surface, there are conditions to support life. While orbiting the fifth planet from the sun, the aptly-named Europa Clipper will complete at least 45 flybys of Europa at a height of less than 16 miles above the surface of Jupiter’s moon. The radiation-tolerant spacecraft is now in the final stages of design before it’s completely built and tested, with a tentative launch date set for sometime in the 2020s.
“We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a press release. “We are building upon the scientific insights received from the flagship Galileo and Cassini spacecraft and working to advance our understanding of our cosmic origin, and even life elsewhere.”
In addition to Galileo and Cassini, Europa has been visited by Voyagers 1 and 2, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope, among others.
Astronomer Galileo Galilei discovered Europa in 1610. Since then, we’ve learned that Europa is a quarter of Earth‘s diameter and a little smaller than our moon, rotating on its axis and completing an orbit of Jupiter every three and a half earth days. Scientists believe that Europa’s ocean could contain upwards of twice as much water as Earth, which is why they also believe it could support life.
After reviewing proposals from invited researchers, NASA selected nine instruments to study Europa, including high-tech cameras, spectrometers, and an ice-penetrating radar, to name a few. Leading the development of the Europa Clipper mission is NASA’s Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Lab, in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for the Science Mission Directorate. Joan Stupik is the mission’s Guidance and Control Engineer.