UT Scientists Design Lander for Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Are we alone in the universe? University of Texas scientists have drawn up plans for a NASA lander that could finally answer that age-old question.

After more than a year’s worth of work, scientists at the Jackson School of Geosciences’ Institute for Geophysics have released a blueprint for a lander that could be used for a future mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

We last wrote about Europa in 2011, when UT researchers were pivotal in the discovery of water there. That finding was a major milestone in the search for life on other planets. The new lander blueprint is another big step forward, says Don Blankenship, senior research scientist at the institute and part of the NASA-commissioned team that designed the blueprint.

“People have talked about landing on Europa for a long time, but nobody had done the details of exactly what it would take to get there,” Blankenship says. “The lander is going to be giving you the opportunity to scratch the surface and look to see what’s there.”

Europa_landerThe blueprint shows the lander would be equipped with a seismology package, which would allow scientists to listen to cracks and determine the thickness of the ice; a magnetometer to detect changes in the magnetic field and help measure the saltiness and chemistry of the ocean; and a camera to take pictures of Europa’s surface. The information gathered from these instruments could lead to a very exciting discovery.

“You get all that and you can start getting a feeling for what it takes to get the right chemicals together to create the energy that life needs to function,” Blankenship says.

That’s right—the lander could confirm whether life exists on Europa. A number of factors already point to favorable conditions for life on the moon, but scientists still aren’t sure it’s possible for potential organisms to get energy, which is essential for life. The sun is too far away from Europa to provide any energy, so those potential organisms would have to get their energy from chemical reactions.

“The pressure’s right, there’s water, the temperature’s right, and the lander will tell you whether the chemistry’s right,” Blankenship says. “All the ingredients are there; it’s all set up. If life evolves in other places, Europa is set up to host it.”

But a Europa landing is still years away. The lander can’t become a reality until Europa Clipper—the lander’s precursor flyby mission for which funding has not yet been approved—launches in 2021, arrives at Europa in 2028, and sends data back from the moon. Still, the progress so far is impressive.

“We’re different than other species, and the reason we’re different is that we’re curious. We want to know what’s going on over the next hill, and the solar system we live in has hills that are pretty far out there,” Blankenship says. “[This] culture can get together technologically and project itself out to the other planets and study places where a second instance of life might have cropped up … That’s what humans do, and I think that’s a good reason to do this.”

Top: Europa viewed from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Image reprocessed by Ted Stryk.

Right: Depiction of Europa lander. Image courtesy Europa Study Team.

Left: Don Blankenship. Photo courtesy Sasha Haagensen. 


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