Europa Mission

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Cara Santa Maria: For millennia, human beings have looked to the skies and pondered one of the greatest mysteries of life: are we alone in the universe? To help answer that question, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL in Pasadena, have their eye on Europa. Discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610… it's one of Jupiter’s 67 known moons, and scientists think it could harbor life.

Kevin Hand, NASA JPL Astrobiologist: I feel like I can make a somewhat solid prediction that Europa’s ocean is habitable. So, I do think, in the coming decade, when we do explore Europa, we will find life.

Cara Santa Maria: Evidence from previous missions shows Europa to have a thick, icy surface. A vast liquid water ocean likely exists beneath its shell and where there’s water, there could be life.

Kevin Hand: So, the loud noise that you hear, those are vacuum pumps…

Cara Santa Maria: JPL astrobiologist Kevin Hand is simulating Europa’s harsh environment in his lab.

Kevin Hand: In order to re-create the temperature, pressure, etc., within this can, we require all these pumps and valves and various instrumentation...

Cara Santa Maria: One of things they have to re-create is sub-freezing temperatures. Europa is cold—really cold. About 350 degrees below zero! That’s a kind of cold we can't comprehend here on earth. and that's not all. It's in a vacuum...

Kevin Hand: There's no atmosphere, and then you got the radiation. Cara: So, it's actually very dangerous inside of there. Kevin: That's right.

Cara Santa Maria: You would not want to crawl into the can.

Kevin Hand: A human would not want to stand on the surface of Europa - as beautiful as it would be - you would die relatively quickly because of the radiation environment.

Cara Santa Maria: Despite the bitter cold and dangerous radiation, life could thrive there.

Kevin Hand: How deep is the ocean? What’s the chemistry of the ocean? What’s dissolved in the ocean? Is there carbon and some of the other elements needed for life? And—Earth definitely serves as a guide...

Cara Santa Maria: When Kevin says earth serves as a guide, he means it.

Hey, Andy, where are we gonna put that guy? If we can, I'd like to put it with Rover. Okay.

Cara Santa Maria: The bruie -- short for buoyant rover for under-ice exploration -- is a prototype used in the frigid waters of Antarctica and Montana. It’s testing some of the conditions a more advanced vehicle may one day experience in europa's ocean.

Cara Santa Maria: But first, scientists want a better look. As early as 2022, JPL intends to send a spacecraft to Europa to learn more about its chemistry, biology, physics, and perhaps, its ability to harbor life.

Kari Lewis, Europa Mission Systems Engineer: You can see just how giantly huge it has to be. And the engine has to be that big because to get a signal from Jupiter to Earth, you need a massively large antenna to do that.

Cara Santa Maria: Do you think the Europa mission will have a vehicle that's this large?

Kari Lewis: Yes, we will also have a similar scale, but what will be different is, our instruments will be much smaller.

Cara Santa Maria: As a systems engineer, Kari Lewis has to ensure that the scientific instruments necessary for a robotic mission 390-million-miles from earth are as lightweight as possible and incredibly reliable.

Kari Lewis: Getting all the instruments to fit is a challenge. One thing is, they all want to do their own thing and they're all uniquely different to do the science they need to do. So, some of them want to just focus on the surface, other ones are more interested in the corona around Europa.

Cara Santa Maria: So, how do you mitigate those challenges?

Kari Lewis: There’s a lot of give-and-take among the scientists and engineers about how we plan to do things just to make sure all the science gets done.

Cara Santa Maria: The goal is for the Europa spacecraft to fly-by the Galilean moon 45 times over a three-year span to make sure Europa is fully mapped in high definition…and that all the requisite science is done. If all goes as planned, we'll get back a wealth of information here on earth and, maybe an answer to that ever-burning question.

Robert Pappalardo/Europa Mission Chief Scientist: What makes the public and NASA especially interested in Europa is the idea that there could possibly be life there. And if we were to find life at Europa, someday, it would imply life is probably common throughout the universe.

Cara Santa Maria: From the voyager spacecraft, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible by venturing beyond the known borders of our solar system…to the Mars Curiosity Rover, a feat of engineering that continues to teach us about the Martian landscape… NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is well positioned to pull off a mission as complex as Europa.

Kevin Hand: Listen, the discovery of life beyond Earth is not going to change the way you make your coffee in the morning, it's not going to make your commute faster, but throughout the history of humanity, exploration and discovery has been a fundamental part of our drumbeat. We explore, we discover, we make progress. And, so, the search for life beyond Earth, that call to dare mighty things and to explore our own world and worlds beyond Earth that I think is at the core of what it means to be human.

Cara Santa Maria: I’m Cara Santa Maria for “SoCal Connected.”

In recent years Jupiter’s moon Europa and its thick icy surface has caught the attention of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Scientists believe that below the surface there may be water that could possibly harbor simple life forms. JPL is making preparations to send a satellite into orbit around Europa in about three years. But first they must design instruments that can withstand Europa’s 320-degree-below-zero atmosphere and intense radiation. Reporter Cara Santa Maria goes to JPL to see how they are tackling these challenges in preparation for an ambitious mission to Europa.

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