There’s probably all sorts of alien life on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Many astrobiologists consider this icy world the best place to look for extraterrestrial life in our solar system. The moon’s subsurface ocean is estimated to have two-to-three times the volume of all the liquid water on Earth, so it’s likely to have a wide variety of ecosystems. And a recent study suggests that the building blocks for life are common on Europa.
Scientists are itching for the opportunity to explore Europa and its inhabitants. And, thanks to new NASA funding, it looks like scientists are closer than ever to launching a Europa mission.
A Europa mission has been on the table for a while. NASA had previous plans to launch a large spacecraft called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, but the crazy $4.7 billion price tag grounded the project indefinitely. Astrobiologist Pabulo Henrique Rampelotto of Brazil’s Federal University of Pampa came up with a more cost-effective solution. He proposed sending three small spacecraft, rather than one large spacecraft. His plan included sending two orbiters and a probe carrying a surface impactor.
But NASA describes its leading concept design, the Europa Clipper, would “send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa.”
It’s exciting to see a Eurpoa mission moving forward. But, Europans might want to start freaking out a bit.
Humans have established a long track record of being dicks. We’re dicks to animals, dicks to the environment, dicks to each other. It stands to reason that we’ll be dicks to aliens too. We like to dissect things to learn about them. We also like to put creatures on display for our amusement.
So, although I’m extremely excited about a mission to Europa and what it can tell us about the life there, I kind of hope those aliens hide when the ships and instruments pass by. Otherwise, they could wind up as part of a dissection lab, or, worse, they might be tortured and put on display at SeaWorld.
The budget allocation for Europa signifies a giant leap forward in actualizing a mission. But it’s still likely several years, and a couple billion dollars, from taking place. David Senske of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laborator, who is the Europa Clipper pre-project deputy project scientist, says that, should everything go according to plan, the Europa Clipper could be ready to launch as early as 2022, and would cost approximately $2 billion.
If a mission does launch in the mid-2020s, the craft won’t reach Europa until 2030. So that gives Europans plenty of time to hide in a good underwater cave, or to build a Death Star.