The question as to whether there is life on Jupiter’s mysterious moon Europa is one step closer to being answered after Nasa announced more details of a three-year mission to find out.
The US space agency revealed the nine instruments the Europa probe will carry to the ice-covered water world during a three-year project due to launch in the 2020s.
Scientists believe Europa’s thick layer of ice covers a salty ocean that may provide suitable conditions for life. Nasa’s Hubble Telescope first observed water vapour above the south polar region of the moon, providing evidence of watery eruptions from beneath the ice, in 2012.
The nine instruments selected from a shortlist of 33 include cameras and spectrometers to produce detailed maps of the moon’s surface, to find out what it’s made up of and to measure its icy shell while in orbit above the moon.
There will also be a magnetometer, which will measure the moon’s magnetic field and allow scientists to work out how deep and how salty the ocean is, while a thermal instrument will look for recent eruptions of warm water. The function of the other instruments will include searching for water and tiny particles in the moon’s atmosphere.
Dr Curt Niebur, Europa programme scientist at Nasa, said: “This is a giant step in our search for oases that could support life in our celestial backyard. We’re confident that this versatile set of science instruments will produce exciting discoveries on a much-anticipated mission.”
He added: “The big question this mission needs to answer is: is Europa habitable? The instruments could find indications of life, but they are not life detectors.”
Nasa has asked for $30 million (£19.6 million) for the Europa mission, which will see a solar-powered spacecraft fly by the moon 45 times, at altitudes ranging from 16 to 1,700 miles, over three years.
Nasa’s Galileo spacecraft, which explored Jupiter and its moons for eight years from 1995, revealed strong evidence of a subterranean ocean on Europa. Scientists now think the ocean could contain more than twice as much water as exists on Earth, despite Europa only being about the size of Earth’s moon.
Powerful tidal forces caused by the tug of Jupiter’s gravity are believed to keep the ocean warm and unfrozen.
Dr John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate, said: “Europa has tantalised us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 fly-bys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon.
“We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.”