Following on the heels of its success with the Mars Curiosity rover, NASA could next send a lander to Jupiter’s ice-filled moon Europa to determine whether it is habitable.
“The prospect of a future soft landing on the surface of Europa is enticing, as it would create science opportunities that could not be achieved through flyby or orbital remote sensing, with direct relevance to Europa’s potential habitability,” NASA writes in the paper’s abstract.
Europa is one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, and scientists believe its icy surface could be hiding a massive ocean of water. In fact, it could have twice as much water as Earth does. Many scientists believe it holds our solar system’s best chance for harboring life beyond Earth.
A mission to Europa would be aimed at determining if it can support life. The highest priority for NASA is to sample Europa’s “non-ice material from at least two different depths (0.5–2 cm and 5–10 cm) to understand its detailed composition and chemistry and the specific nature of salts, any organic materials, and other contaminants.” Such a mission would also have the goal of better understanding the moon’s geophysical features.
A tool that could help us explore Europa’s icy oceans has already been detailed. It’s a tiny submarine the size of two soda cans being developed by Uppsala University’s Division of Microsystems Technology.
While a mission to Europa probably won’t be feasible for another decade and NASA hasn’t officially announced a mission yet, it’s fun to theorize what we could find in Europa’s ocean and if the moon could be a space outpost for humans. Hopefully we’ll see some serious traction on this in the next few years.