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Is Jupiter's Bizarre Moon Our Best Hope for Finding Extraterrestrial Life?

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Author Topic: Is Jupiter's Bizarre Moon Our Best Hope for Finding Extraterrestrial Life?  (Read 86 times)
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« on: August 30, 2009, 06:11:55 pm »

“I believe that Europa is the most promising place in the solar system for astrobiological potential,” says Robert Pappalardo, a planetary scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, who is set to take the role of study scientist for the Europa mission.

Through much of the past century, Mars was regarded as the only plausible place in the solar system where alien life could exist. But a dozen costly American missions have provided no solid evidence that organisms ever inhabited the Red Planet. There is not even any clear sign of liquid water there today, only intriguing hints of lakes and rivers that apparently dried up millions of years ago. That is a big reason why scientists are increasingly pinning their hopes on Europa, a world that is literally swimming in water. In February NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) agreed to turn their gaze away from Mars and focus on Europa and the other massive satellites of Jupiter—a grouping that includes the largest moon and several exotic ocean worlds right out of science fiction, all circling the largest planet in the solar system.

The upcoming operation—currently known by its bureaucratic program name, the Europa Jupiter System Mission—heralds a new era for exploring the outer solar system. Almost everything we know about that vast realm comes from quick flybys provided by Pioneer and Voyager and broad surveys conducted by two probes, Galileo (which examined Jupiter and its moons before taking a planned suicide plunge into the giant planet in 2003) and Cassini (which is still bouncing around the Saturn system). If all goes as planned, that situation will begin to change in 2020, when a huge NASA spacecraft will set out for Europa. Soon after, ESA will launch a companion probe to Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s other giant, icy moons. Both vehicles would slide into the Jupiter system by 2026, spend a year or two touring the planet and its satellites, then settle into orbit around their respective targets.

The 9,000-pound NASA probe will bristle with a dozen specialized instruments designed to see, smell, and explore Europa from a choice vantage point 60 miles away. Its powerful radar will penetrate the surface remotely, perhaps peering all the way through Europa’s icy shell and into the ocean beneath, while other instruments make detailed maps of the fractured landscape, analyze the molecules that make up Europa’s fantastically tenuous atmosphere, and measure the radiation effects of formidable Jupiter, which dominates the moon’s sky with its pink- and salmon-colored cloud bands and swirling red storm.
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