Hot Damn, We're Going To Europa

Of all the planets and moons in our solar system that are likely to harbor life, Europa has to be one of the most promising. I mean, yeah, Earth is pretty good too, but after Earth, the ocean-world of the Jovian moon Europa is full of exciting possibility for biological life. It seems that we should be able to get some more insight into this possibility soon, as NASA has committed to a Europa-bound exploration mission by 2025.

The spacecraft NASA is planning to send to Europa is known as the Europa Clipper. It’s named after a sailing vessel because of the unique way the spacecraft will interact with the ocean-covered moon. Because Europa orbits Jupiter within that planet’s intense radiation fields, any spacecraft, no matter how radiation-hardened, would only survive a few months in orbit around Europa.

Because data transmission speeds are so slow from deep space, it’s crucial for the spacecraft to remain operable as long as possible. The amount of time the probe spends using its instruments to gather data is actually much less than the time it takes to transmit that data back to Earth.

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Because of these unique circumstances, it was decided that the Europa Clipper will orbit Jupiter, but make a series of 45 flybys of the moon to gather data, then return to the relative safety of a Jovian orbit outside of the intense radiation zones to transmit the data back.

These flybys should provide enough coverage of the moon to gather the desired data, while at the same time preserving the spacecraft so it’s able to transmit the data home.

The Europa Clipper is being designed and built by JPL, who are planning to include nine key scientific instruments on the probe:

Scientific Instrument(s)

- Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS)

- Interior Characterization of Europa using MAGnetometry (ICEMAG)

- Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE)

- Europa Imaging System (EIS)

- Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON)

- Europa THermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS)

- MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX)

- Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS)

- SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA)

At the moment, there is no plan for any sort of lander, which I guess is good news if you’ve seen the end of the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

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The Europa Clipper could be launched by the upcoming NASA Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on a direct trajectory, likely around 2025, or possibly as early as 2023 if a commercial launch vehicle like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy is used. This is still being decided.

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Europa is a fascinating world, and the exciting possibility of extra-terrestrial life is pretty intoxicating. I can’t wait to see what we find out.

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)